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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Torchwood: The Complete First Season (review)

Aliens Go Home

If you’ve been following my episode-by-episode geeking out over Torchwood, then you don’t need me to tell you that you need to buy the new DVD box set of the complete Season One. But if you’re a newbie — say, you’ve been hearing about this BBC/BBC America show and have been meaning to check it out — here’s the spoiler-free, nothing-ruined-for-you-till-you-watch-it-yourself lowdown on the series.
Listen: It’s Doctor Who, with sex. Now, we longtime Whovians — or Wholigans, as some fans have taken to calling us Time Lord geeks; I like it — have always known there was all sorts of naughty stuff going on in the TARDIS, however circumspect the show, which was originally aimed at kids, had to be about it. But it’s all upfront on Torchwood. And I don’t mean that there’s merely a lot of explicitly naked wrestling and grunting happening onscreen, though there is that, of course. No: I mean, these people are adults, with adult lives and adult concerns and adult relationships, and the adventures we see them having don’t ignore this. The “sex” is mostly in their heads … and in their attitudes and motives and very beings. They talk about grownup things, with grownup language — and that’s not just in how they use some pretty strong swear words like we all do in real life but which American TV ignores unless you’re watching The Sopranos (and then it’s just “bad guys” who use harsh language), but in what they do talk about, and what they don’t. Characters are gay and straight and bi, they lie to their lovers with the best of intentions, they have to contend with the fact that working together with other adults in a high-stress situation can lead to all sorts of ways to deal with that stress. It’s just the way things are.

And it just so happens that these characters work for a supersecret independent — almost rogue — agency that protects Earth from alien influence. See, there’s a rift in space and time that runs through the middle of the city of Cardiff, in Wales, through which all sorts of alien flotsam and jetsam — creatures, sentient beings, technology — washes up on Earth. (This rift was introduced early in the run of the new Doctor Who series, in an episode set in Cardiff in the 1860s.) Much of this is potentially actually dangerous, in the things-go-boom, people-gonna-die sense, and much of it is potentially culturally dangerous, in the oh-my-god-aliens-are-real-and-walk-among-us sense. So Torchwood, which operates out of a way-cool secret installation under the center of the city, mops up the mess. Some of the mopping up involves dosing regular folk with a drug called retcon — serious fans of genre fiction get the joke of the name — that erases memories and restores that safe, yes-we-are-alone-in-the-universe feeling.

This causes frequent problems, needless to say.

Some of the stories are clearly transferred over from Doctor Who, and the show has a leading man who is obviously a bit Doctor-esque: Captain Jack Harkness, a human “time agent” from the 51st century who has, through complicated plot machinations that happened when he appeared on Doctor Who, been rendered immortal. (Jack is played by the delicious John Barrowman, who is utterly wonderfully symbolic of the crosscultural appeal of Torchwood: He’s a native of Glasgow who lived as a teenager in the United States, so he’s got British attitudes and an American accent; he also a gay man playing a sexually omnivorous guy who’s become a sex symbol for everyone, no matter what their orientation — and he is among the best reasons to watch the show.) Those almost-Doctor Who episodes are fine, but toward the end of the first season, the writers starting finding their footing and giving us stories that could not work on Doctor Who, that were uniquely Torchwood. The beginning of the second season is continuing that promise. Jack tells us in his voiceover that opens each episode that “the 21st century is when everything changes, and you’ve gotta be ready for it.” You’re gonna wanna get ready for Season Two of Torchwood, at least, by not missing Season One.

I had a moment of panic when I first checked out the American edition of the DVDs: I thought they were edited down from the British versions (as the episodes that aired on BBC America were). I thought I remembered scenes that were in the British versions I watched, and were now missing. But no: the American edition of Torchwood: Season One contains the unedited British episodes. I was remembering deleted scenes that I had watched on YouTube, which felt so integral to the episodes that in my memory, they had become part of the story. Those deleted scenes are here in the set, though they’re not easy to find — my only complaint about the set is that the copious bonus material is not organized as well as it could be. At least all the installments of “Torchwood Declassified” — mini 10-minute making-of documentaries that aired on the BBC, one immediately after each episode — are kept together on one disc.

This is great stuff: great drama, great science fiction. And it’s not like anything you’ll see on American TV.

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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