Saturday, 16 July 2011

What Happened To Torchwood?

When it comes to science fiction I can take it or leave it. The best is glorious the worst involves mentions of Stonehenge/Mars/undiscovered underground civilisations and techno-babble that doesn't make any juice in my body flow.

As a kid I read lots. All the Dune books, becoming less interested as the series went on. I watched Dr Who and really enjoyed what they now call 'classic' Star Trek but never a Trekker/Trekkie. One of my favourite shows as a kid was Timeslip - two kids slipping backwards - and then forwards in time. The latter worked on an emotional level,  not just something that tried to bamboozle you by adopting geek-o-tron pseudo science. I've always been more engaged by the dilemma people find themselves in rather than the technology around them. I never missed an early X-Files, even though the reset button meant Scully never learned anything.

If there is a human story at the heat of the piece it draws me in.

When Torchwood first appeared it had that effect. Here was an X-Files type show set in Wales. Wales was not cool, people spoke with strange accents, why would some strange rift be centred on, of all places, Cardiff ? These were the questions the critics asked - and yet it worked. I bought into it because Russel T Davies had done with Torchwood what he'd done with Dr Who - found an emotional, human core.

I liked the idea that Captain Jack had been around a long long time. Here was a complex character with the kind of sexuality not normally seen in a leading role on TV - and certainly not in a sci-fi series. Delving into the history of the Torchwood Institute was as much fun as the monster of the week story.

But as the series progressed we began to lose core cast members. Too many core cast members. I don't know whether this was because actors wanted to move on or whether RTD got fed up with the constraints of the format he'd created and decided that the way forward was to dismantle and rebuild. It just seemed odd to me that an enjoyable romp was being wound down.

And then came Torchwood: Children of Earth. It was given huge prominence in the BBC One schedule and was generally hailed as the best series yet. But again core cast were sacrificed to story. By the end of this excellent run the Torchwood home had been blown up and there was just Captain Jack and Eve left. Torchwood was no more.

Huh? The best series ever and...they killed off everyone and blew it all up?

I asked myself would I have gone that far?

What began as one thing had become another - but in that process had become better. Or had it. I liked Torchwood's subteranean home. I liked the gizmos and the bigger cast. I liked the monster of the week format. It always seemed streets ahead of Fringe but made on a much tighter budget. And I liked the way the characters home stories entwined with the alien hunting activities in Torchwood. As I said before sci-fi works best for me when something approaching a three diemensional character walks across my screen.

And now we have yet another incarnation of the series, Torchwood: Miracle Day. This time produced by the American Starz network. Bigger budgets, bigger explosions, bigger stars - "Wow, isn't that the guy who used to be in ER - and hey, there's that girl who was in Six Feet Under".

It centres on the idea that one day everyone on planet Earth just stops dying. Burn them to a crisp, chop off their heads, doesn't matter, they just keep going. Terrific. Great twist on the zombie idea. (I'm not a fan of Zombies, The Walking Dead was just that, a show full of dead people going nowhere slowly).

But here's the thing; the first episode was awful. Really, really bad. It clunked, it groaned. Frankly if most of us had written that and handed it in we'd have been laughed out of the door. Attempting to set parts in the US and parts in Wales was always going to be tough. American accents next to Welsh accents? English accents next to Welsh never jarred, we hear them all the time, it's part of our national fabric but once you put Cardiff next to Washington D.C. it didn't feel right. The story's most interesting character, peadophile killer, Oswald Danes wasn't given much time to do anything more than leer. Okay, I accept you can't build the full force of darkness in one show but with everything that was happening around it the Bill Pullman leer was looking a bit pantomime villain.

Accents aside, there were many more things to ponder in this series opener. Like how come Captain Jack would suddenly appear as if by magic? A CIA agent goes searching in a government library for documentation about Torchwood and suddenly Captain Jack is there.

One minute Eve Myles is living in the most remote location in Wales and the next moment she's being buzzed by helicopters and Captain Jack appears! Hurrah! Let's not try to escape the helicopters via the roads but drive across the open sandy beach. Some very dodgy CGI didn't help.

By the end it just felt like, well, a mess. Instead of being pulled in we're now being force fed. Plot that took an age to get anywhere, hammy acting.

We watched it as a family, one of my teenage kids got up and walked off after falling asleep the other said,  "I'll give it one more episode..."

But let me just remind you - I was a fan. I really liked the show. So, what's gone wrong?

I think what had made Torchwood such an interesting format has all gone.But like my son, I'll give it one more episode.

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