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Friday, 3 November 2006 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I can't help thinking that Torchwood is the series that Russell T. Davies really wanted to write; whereas his Doctor Who saw him updating a classic format by rooting it in present day England, with stories primarily set on Earth, with mixed results, Torchwood, which is set in Cardiff, easily lends itself to the format of a science fiction set in the present day, with a regular cast of characters who have friends, relatives, and lives outside of work, resulting in a set-up that feels markedly less forced than the Doctor's frequent returns to the Powell estate so that Rose can visit Mickey and her Mum.

And it works. Torchwood wears its influences on its sleeve; the structure of the opening episode reflects that of 'Rose', with an ordinary working girl (in this case policewoman Gwen) is gradually drawn into an extraordinary world of aliens and alien technology when she meets a mysterious and charismatic man about whom there are records dating from Earth's past. Buffy, of which Davies has always openly admitted to being a fan, also plays a role, with the rift (first seen in 'The Unquiet Dead' and again in 'Boom Town') essentially fulfilling the same role as the hell mouth in that series, acting as a plot device or explaining the high occurrence of aliens and sundry other paranormal events in Cardiff. But whilst 'Rose' was cluttered and too-fast moving, reintroducing the Doctor Who format by dragging it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, 'Everything Changes' is a better paced, smoother affair. Ironically, given the adult target audience and the late timeslot, on the evidence of this first episode, Torchwood, whilst bloodier and sexier than Davies' Doctor Who, is more mature in the ways I least expected; there are "adult" jokes, sex and innuendo, but the toilet humour and frequent lack of subtlety in that series is far more restrained here.

This is most obvious and least expected in the characterization of Captain Jack. Whereas in 'Boom Town' Captain Jack, in Davies' hands, became "Captain of the innuendo squad", here he's a more brooding presence. He still flirts with his colleagues, both male and female, but he's obviously haunted by his inability to die following his resurrection by Rose at the end of 'Bad Wolf'/'The Parting of the Ways'. This is gradually becomes clear from the first scene with the resurrection glove, as he intensely asks the unfortunate John Tucker what dying is like, and his comments about finding "the right sort of Doctor" to explain what has happened to him is blatantly going to be a recurring character trait. Indeed, his glib comment that the perception filter was caused by a "dimensionally transcendental chameleon circuit" suggests that his only reason for joining Torchwood, and basing himself in Cardiff, is because he knows from personal experience that both the Doctor and the TARDIS have been there. Interestingly, he is presented as a man of mystery but although as yet only Davies knows his origins, Doctor Who fans in the audience fans know more about him that; this becomes even clearer in 'Day One', when it turns out that the rest of Torchwood aren't even sure about his sexuality, and is rather unusual.

John Barrowman is at his best as Captain Jack here, recalling in particular the role he gave in 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances', proving by turns heroic, dashing and charming, but with a slightly untrustworthy edge (witness the ease with which he attempts to wipe Gwen's memories); in short, without having to play second fiddle to the Doctor, he makes a perfect leading man. Indeed, Jack is something of a ruthless pragmatist here, instructing his staff to move and alter corpses to cover to avoid discovery of their work.

Eve Myles, who previously appeared as Gwyneth in 'The Unquiet Dead', is also well cast as Gwen, a thoroughly likeable and sympathetic character whose sense of morality prompts her to angrily condemn Jack for failing to use the technology at his disposal to help the victims of crime rather than merely exploiting them; it is this, coupled with Suzie's betrayal, that prompts Jack to decide, "Perhaps we could help more", presumably setting the tone for rest of the series. Russell introduces the audience to Torchwood through Gwen's eyes, which works far better than his introduction to the Doctor through Rose's eyes did, especially in the memorably creepy (and quite bloody) scene in which she first encounters the Weevil. Notably, she bursts into tears and shakes with terror when Suzie is about to shoot her, a very natural and human response, but one that is rarely seen in Doctor Who, which serves as a reminder that Torchwood is intended to have a far more realistic feel than its parent series.

Of the other regulars introduced here, Owen is profoundly obnoxious and thoroughly unlikable, as he is clearly meant to be; a man whose reaction to privileged circumstances is one of selfishness and arrogance rather than responsibility, he clearly sees Torchwood's haul of alien technology as his own private toyshop, most notably during the deeply objectionable scene in which he uses the alien equivalent of Rohypnol to lure a woman into bed. Although the idea of using drugs to force people to fall in love (or lust) as been treated as the stuff of comedy ever since Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream, the moral implications are appalling, since Owen's prey is blatantly not consenting whilst in her right mind. Rather worryingly, Davies scripts the whole scene for laughs, as Owen is forced to use the spray on his victim's boyfriend and is forced to make a rapid getaway to avoid an unwanted menage-a-trois. Burn Gorman is alarmingly convincing in the role.

Indira Varma is equally convincing as unexpected traitor Suzie, whose obsession with the resurrection glove has driven her mad; it isn't clear if this is a result of the glove itself (which is quarantined after she commits suicide) or her own personality, but Varma conveys Suzie's conflicting mix of emotions very well. Suzie's betrayal serves two purposes; one is to provide a vacancy for Gwen to step into, the other is to illustrate that in comparison to, for example, Pertwee era UNIT, Torchwood Cardiff is a dysfunctional group, further demonstrated by the lack of regard that Owen and Toshiko have for Jack's order that none of the alien technology leaves the base. This friction within the group, to which Gwen's moral stance will undoubtedly continue to contribute, is almost certainly going to drive the characterization within the rest of the series. As for the other regulars, Naoko Mori's Toshiko and Gareth David-Lloyd's Ianto get little to do here, although both give decent performances and it would seem likely that they'll each get opportunities to explore their characters more in future episodes.

Other things worthy of note in 'Everything Changes' include some of the dialogue, which veers between the best and worst of Davies' writing. As in Doctor Who, we get unwieldy contrived sermons, including Jack's "Contraceptives in the rain. Love this planet" speech on oestrogen pollution, but there are also flashes of genuinely amusing wit including the line, "That is so Welsh? I show you something fantastic, you find fault." Other gems of characterization and dialogue include the first resurrection glove scene, which is very intense, as John Tucker seems convincingly terrified at what is happening to him, and the scene in which Gwen meets the Weevil, which she assumes is a man in a mask, which is all very post-modern and obvious, but also the most likely explanation and therefore a reasonable assumption to make.

As for the production side, Torchwood benefits from some great (if derivative) set designs (the Hub prison cells are very The Silence of the Lambs) and extensive location filming which benefits the series enormously. Brian Kelly's direction is generally very effective, maintaining a fast pace when necessary, but also allowing the story to unfold without the visual clutter that Keith Boak brought to Davies' debut Doctor Who episode 'Rose'. The only real criticism I have of the direction is in the overuse of aerial shots which give the production a glossy sub-Hollywood blockbuster air but seem designed purely to show off Cardiff and are a bit distracting, especially the astoundingly pointless of Jack posing on top of a building for no reason whatsoever. And Torchwood's vehicle looks crap.

Overall, Torchwood is a pleasant surprise, and 'Everything Changes' makes for an effective opener. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Davies' restraint in a series in which he could feasibly make all the smut and innuendo that blights his Doctor Who episodes far more prominent. Ironically, it is the second episode, by writers Chris Chibnall and Brian Kelly, that sees Torchwood exploring areas that I expected Davies to want to script, as we get the unlikely experience of an alien that shags people to death?

FILTER: - Torchwood - Television