Torchwood: Exodus CodeBookmark and Share

Thursday, 13 September 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Written by John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman
BBC Books
UK Release - 13 September 2012
Available to purchase from Amazon UK
This review contains plot spoilers

Arguably, the greatest blessing of Torchwood is in danger of becoming a curse. I’m referring to Children of Earth – five episodes that pushed the TV show into a brave new world, and won it newfound international critical acclaim. And where Miracle Day seemed overly keen to repeat the CoE trick, this novel very much follows the same template yet again. It could almost be entitled Women of Earth; this time it’s women at locations around the globe who are affected by a mysterious madness which may have an alien origin. Like CoE, there’s an epic feel, and a historical precursor involving none other than Captain Jack Harkness. And like Miracle Day, the remnants of team Torchwood have a unique inside-track on exactly what’s happening. In line with its TV predecessors, there’s also a significant issue raised by fantastical events: patriarchal society’s reaction to an outbreak of ‘mad’ women. Captain Jack gets a lecture on the reactionary nature of presumed female “hysteria” (p.149), and mental health services are rapidly overwhelmed.

There must surely be a limit to the number of times that a CoE-style storyline can plausibly be mounted, and Exodus Code flirts with reaching this limit. No sooner has planet Earth put the Miracle behind it – seemingly carrying on without any real, lasting changes – then there’s another worldwide threat to contend with. What seemed format-breaking, edgy and energizing in the case of CoE now threatens to ossify constrictively into Torchwood’s latter-day format.

Exodus Code works best when it dares to innovate rather than when it’s slavishly aligned with recent TV incarnations. The introduction of “a Hub” (p.293) radically unlike the old Cardiff base is a clever, much-needed move, and has the potential to generate many more future stories. New team members are a little under-written, however, and few characters really come to life beyond the established gang of Gwen, Captain Jack, Rhys and Andy Davidson (all of whom are notably well captured). By contrast, Torchwood’s new fellow travellers seem more like a collection of gimmicks rather than rounded, fleshed-out people, although this may be a result of the breathless thriller genre that Exodus Code belongs to. For example, government adviser Alan Pride sounds like a fascinating figure, but we are only really told this via various info-dumps, rather than being shown Pride in action.

As might be expected from writers John and Carole E. Barrowman, there are some lovely nods to Torchwood continuity, whether it’s a mention of “Suzie”, discussion of morphic resonance, or the specific Torchwood kit that Gwen makes use of. And Rex Matheson even makes an appearance, ultimately amounting to little more than a guest cameo. Exodus Code ties back to Miracle Day in multiple, deft ways, though it’s hard to avoid inferring that The Powers That Be have placed Rex’s unusual status firmly off-limits. The same problem has dogged post-Miracle Day audios, leaving the odd feeling that these tales aren’t quite allowed to whole-heartedly continue Torchwood’s adventures.

Of course, a big part of this novel’s selling point lies with its authors. Captain Jack is especially well served throughout, returning to his omnisexual, zesty self after the detours of Miracle Day. There’s a real love and respect for Torchwood on show, as well as a beautifully unexpected nod to Sarah Jane Smith. Jack is pretty much rendered as Exodus Code’s central figure; Gwen doesn’t directly feature until roughly a quarter of the way into things.

The non-linear storytelling works effectively, even if events of the finale do become a little compressed and complicated. For instance, a clunky explanation on page 328 indicates that the scenario could probably have been more smoothly conveyed, though Gwen’s humorous response deflects any excess melodrama. And there are some compelling ideas woven around the title’s “code”, with the Barrowmans working unusual medical conditions, enigmatic designs, genetics, computer code and even artificial intelligence into the rich brew of thriller elements.

This page-turner revitalizes Torchwood by suggesting a possible way forward for the show, and by introducing a host of new characters who could be further developed in future. It’s just a shame that the consequences of Miracle Day seem so muted, particularly in terms of Rex’s character. John and Carole Barrowman are clearly gifted storytellers (both on this evidence and that of their earlier novel, Hollow Earth). I, for one, would welcome another Torchwood tale from the pair, perhaps something finally marking an exodus from the CoE code, and its gradually diminishing returns.