‘Is that what alien life is? Filth? But maybe there’s better stuff out there, brilliant stuff, beautiful stuff. Just they don’t come here.’ From the off, this is meant to offer a very different take than the parent show. That was all about seeing the wonders and terrors of the universe; this is set in amongst the detritus, the things that fall to Earth. It’s rooted in death, and sex, and filth, and the worst of human nature. It ends with one of the team outed as a killer, committing suicide and her body being shoved inside a wall of freezers – the implication being, you work for Torchwood and this is where, sooner or later, you end up.
And it does this by paralleling the specifics of Rose, with an “ordinary” person with an everyday job suddenly exposed to a whole world of uncanny things just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. The moment when Gwen advances down a deserted corridor, only to be pulled away from a monster by the leading man feels like an explicit replay of the ‘Run!’ scene in Rose. Except, because this is Torchwood, it’s accompanied with the hospital porter’s gory death whereas Wilson’s was only implied in Doctor Who. And just like the Doctor tells Rose to ‘forget me’, Jack does the same to Gwen – but tries to medicate away her memories as well. Gwen investigates, like Rose does; she sees Jack walking away and apparently vanishing into thin air, like Rose does in the ‘turn of the Earth scene’; she stumbles across the secret base, hidden in plain sight; has to deal with a useless (at this stage) boyfriend, while being wooed by a handsome stranger, and in the end she makes the choice to go with him and leave her old life behind.
So, it’s largely operating from a proven template. The major difference is that Torchwood is a team that Gwen is joining, not just one man wandering through time and space. I think wisely, RTD doesn’t try to give them all a piece of the action. Besides Jack, Owen gets the most time mainly by dint of being the upstart challenger to Jack’s leadership, threatening to punch back, dismissing Tosh’s approach to the resurrection interview as stupid, and nicking a sex spray so he can bypass having to chat people up and skip straight to the action. Tosh just seems a bit hapless, although is also using some of the alien technology for her own ends, and Suzie, in a foreshadow of Miracle Day, wants the resurrection glove to offer ‘resurrection on demand for the whole world.’
Rightly, this is about the rapid unravelling of Gwen’s life thanks to her police instincts to be nosy and ask questions. Eve Myles plays it brilliantly, with the right level of toughness that she’s not a walkover and keeps pushing for the truth but isn’t some sort of kung-fu superhero (she gets dazed in her first fight), or stone-cold supercop (she cries when she thinks she’s going to be shot). Her main quality is her dogged persistence, in contrast to Suzie’s running away.
Pairing her with Jack, repurposed from the wisecracking Lando Calrissian of Doctor Who into a more ambiguous, guarded character who’s reluctant to share too much, is neat, because Gwen will keep pushing to solve the mystery of Jack, a man who was presumed dead but cannot die. Importantly, the audience don’t really know the character – he was in five episodes of Series One of Doctor Who, and was left for dead in the distant future. We know nothing about how he came to be in the 21st Century, or join Torchwood, or end up leading Torchwood Three. It’s his “Mulder’s sister” mystery.
Not everything works. The Torchwood jeep with its blue strip lights looks silly; the pterodactyl in the hub is meant to be quirky but isn’t; there’s a lot of standing about on roofs. What is the point of the security guard who hassles Gwen when she parks her police car? But this is offset by RTD’s normal talent for characterisation and jokes (’CSI Cardiff’), and a couple of disturbingly adult moments, like resurrected murder victim declaring, ‘Nothing, I saw nothing. Oh my god, there’s nothing.’ I really like it.
Next Time: Day One