Season One of Torchwood premiered on the digital channel BBC Three.
Within a few months, between October 2006 and January 2007, we had two Doctor Who spinoffs. They were fairly straightforward approaches. Put somebody into the Doctor role, either a brilliant former companion of the Doctor (Sarah) or somebody with his own immortality super power (Jack), give them their own companions, and throw them into alien plots without the safety net of the Doctor to solve things. The Sarah Jane Adventures was for a younger audience than Doctor Who. Torchwood was for an older audience. Only one of those approaches is straightforward.
If you are making a Doctor Who spinoff aiming at a younger audience, you simply make Doctor Who -ish stories, cutting out the 1% – 5% of content in a typical Doctor Who story that might be problematical for young children. So what about a Doctor Who spinoff aimed at an older audience? On the face of it, this seems like a simple question with an obvious answer, and the first season of Torchwood went for it: increase the 1% – 5% of unsuitable content as much as you can. Wrong answer.
The end result was a series that put in a lot of adult stuff for the sake of it, and it all ended up feeling rather like some kind of a teenage view of what adult television should look like: lots of sex and violence and death. The prime example of that is Cyberwoman, which lays bare the approach: how do we make a Cybermen story on Torchwood? Simple, a sexy Cyberwoman and lots of blood. But putting in things that get you a 15 certificate does not automatically equal entertainment, and the hit rate for the first two years of Torchwood is actually pretty dismal.
Season Two of Torchwood premiered on the terrestrial channel BBC Two.
The first two years of Torchwood are absolutely obsessed with death. Whilst it is admittedly impressive that a television series for once delivered on the premise that nobody is safe, if you keep killing off the regulars you jeopardise the loyalty of the viewers for the sake of a cheap thrill, which would eventually become a major problem in the fourth season with only a couple of the original main characters remaining and attempts to introduce new ones falling flat. The result is also a remarkably bleak overall picture, with unhappy endings almost becoming the norm for an episode of Torchwood.
And there was another problem with the push towards adult themes. To involve the regulars in the plots they end up compromised as characters we want to watch. Almost immediately Owen is a monster, using a date rape drug. Right from the start he is a dead man walking as a character before he literally becomes a dead man walking. Despite a huge effort to make him a fun character to watch (and he is), there is no getting away from the way in which he is originally presented to us. We might enjoy watching him in the end, but we cannot in all honesty like him as a character. Tosh’s interest in him diminishes her, and similarly all the love triangles going on force us to lose our respect for all the main characters. It’s hard to like Gwen, who allows herself to stray from the lovable Rhys. It’s hard to like Ianto who ends up in a rebound relationship with the man who killed his girlfriend. It’s hard to like Jack, who seems incapable of actual friendship and is basically a sexual predator.
Luckily there are some brilliant episodes during those first couple of years, just enough to make it very difficult to take the decision not to tune in next week. Small Worlds and Random Shoes are both high-concept episodes with phenomenal guest performances (Lara Phillipart in Small Worlds and Paul Chequer in Random Shoes), and both work because they embrace something more magical than Torchwood’s usual focus on the nihilistic bleak and pointless mess of a human existence it keeps selling us. James Marsters shows up in the second season and of course he’s completely magnificent. But for every brilliant episode that opens the mind of the viewer, we get two or three exercises in misery that close the mind. The one I would highlight in particular that was a hair’s breadth from making me decide not to continue watching Torchwood was A Day in the Death, a depressing atheist diatribe. Whatever the beliefs of the viewers, who would want to watch an episode built on selling the misery and fear of emptiness after death? Give me Buffy the Vampire Slayer and our hero being dragged out of heaven to fight the good fight any day.
Season Three of Torchwood premiered on the flagship channel BBC One.
And there had been some real progress over the first couple of seasons. Everyone was learning how to do adult without doing gratuitous. Then came Children of Earth, a five-part mini series with a single storyline, told over one week. It was of course completely amazing, a tightly focussed drama with a fascinating central idea, great acting (most notably Peter Capaldi), and a moral dilemma to make us think. It was epic in all the right ways. So having found the perfect format for Torchwood, the very definition of event television, where was the logical place to go from here?
The first season of Torchwood broke all the records for BBC Three, but then the viewing figures declined sharply from over two million to below a million. The second season initially performed well on BBC Two, started with over four million viewers, but again the figures declined to around two and a half million, similar figures to the ones the channel had been achieving for repeats of the first season. Now let’s look at the viewing figures for Children of Earth on BBC One:
- Day One: 6.47 million
- Day Two: 6.14 million
- Day Three: 6.40 million
- Day Four: 6.76 million
- Day Five: 6.58 million
A television series that maintains that level of consistency is remarkably rare. So the logical thing to do had to be more of the same, right? Another one-week event?
Season Four of Torchwood moved over to the USA as a British-American co-production.
Torchwood never really had a chance to achieve longevity. As soon as it proved itself in one home it was immediately removed and had to start again somewhere else. For three years it achieved a level of success that clearly justified another series being made. Miracle Day managed between 0.88 and 1.51 million in the US and between 4.48 and 6.59 million in the UK, so relatively solid, but in place of the tightly focussed five-part miniseries we had a ten-episode sprawling mess. And that was no surprise, because American genre television had long since got lost.
The success of Lost ruined genre television in America for a generation. It is still largely stuck in the same rut. Lost was a phenomenon, which grabbed hold of the viewers and trapped them, always setting up mysteries we were desperate to find the answers to, and holding back the answers for an eternity. So everyone thought: aha, so that’s the way to keep hold of the viewers. Cue endless genre series with sprawling, complex plots, generally getting cancelled before they answered their mysteries, if the writers ever had worked out any of the answers at all. So Torchwood got trapped within a style of television that was laboriously slow, while viewers of Doctor Who were used to enjoying stories that moved at a lightening-fast pace. Miracle Day was ten episodes with probably two episodes worth of story.
So will Torchwood ever return? I would suggest it’s unlikely, although Big Finish are doing great work with the audios. If there’s one lesson that should be learnt from the history of Torchwood it’s this: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. RP
The view from across the pond:
To understand Torchwood, one has to recognized that it’s not one single thing. The series came about when, in order to obfuscate the transmission of Doctor Who scripts, an anagram was created. See? DoctorWho unscrambles to Torchwood. But the genius who came up with that idea, Russell T. Davies, was not content letting a good idea go to waste. So Torchwood was created as an idea within the Doctor Who universe. It was to be an organization, founded by the Queen, to fight alien threats. Then an entire season of Doctor Who could be created doing a slow unveiling which would then launch a series.
But the series itself is also more than one single thing too. In point of fact, it can be viewed as three distinct entities. One, (consisting of two seasons) an X-Files-esque monster of the week extravaganza; another, the best damned 5 hours of science fiction television drama you could imagine and the last, an utter crap-fest such as what happens when the monkeys at the zoo decide to fling around their own feces.
And while that last one is harsh, let’s take a look at what we have. The first two seasons introduce the stellar cast of Tosh, Owen, Gwen Cooper and her boyfriend Rhys, and Ianto Jones. This group works with Jack Harkness, last seen in the far future on the game station at the end of the first season of the rebooted Doctor Who. They protect the Earth since the exile of the Third Doctor is long since over. This gives us a range of episodes that run the gamut from intensely terrifying (Countricide) to utterly idiotic sex gas monsters (First Day). Think I’m making it up? It’s the second episode; go watch it! The quality varies but some are truly outstanding. Season one ends in a way that ties into season 3 of Doctor Who. When it returns for season two, we get an explanation of how Jack made it back to earth after The Parting of the Ways. Sadly, it also adds an unneeded romantic element to further the “gay agenda” Doctor Who has been accused of. (You know, some things are not needed in certain types of show. For instance going “mature” like Star Trek Discovery felt was necessary just to be able to say “hey, we said the F word!” or “Oh, did you like those topless Klingon women?” It’s not needed. Sometimes less is more! And what doesn’t add to a story, takes away from the story! I digress…)
By season 3, the 5 part story Children of Earth launched and this was the sort of mature storytelling that you’ve dreamed about. A slow build, but an intelligent one, this depicted the children of the entire planet becoming possessed as they announced the arrival of an alien race. Honestly, if you haven’t seen this, go watch it. It’s raw, brutal, brilliant, and terrifying. It’s not for the faint of heart but it is damned good storytelling. You’ve burned hours on far worse things; what’s five hours of awesome storytelling?
Now I can’t say the same for the final season. Like the Doctor Who movie with Paul McGann, once America gets their hands on a solid franchise, they want to Americanize it, which in this case meant utterly undoing everything that the series was. you know, like saying the Doctor is half-human after 30 years of him saying exactly the opposite! See, Jack Harkness was made immortal at the end of the 2005 season of Doctor Who and that carries over throughout Torchwood. Well, throughout until season 4 when the whole world becomes immortal except Jack. Why would they need to revamp the entire idea of the main character? Because it’s Americanized, duh!? Why would they need to put an intense homoerotic scene in the middle of episode 7 or 8? Because, c’mon, it’s mature! When my son and I did the marathon viewing, this was the only time he ever felt it was fair to jump past where we were because it was an interminable scene and really awkward to watch. But let me say this: it wouldn’t have been any different if it were a heterosexual scene either: it was unnecessary in the context of the show. There’s a time and a place for those things and it wasn’t in Torchwood.
But the concepts behind Torchwood were good, and the cast was outstanding. Torchwood has a place in Doctor Who lore. It is worth watching as a fan of the series. I’d even say it should be watched, but when you get to season 4, watch it when nothing else is on and Doctor Who is between seasons. Unlike The Sarah Jane Adventures, it did not get a great ending. There were no happy little epilogues to tie a nice bow on things. We have to rely on Big Finish for that.
Or we will just get yet another spin-off to talk about somewhere else… ML