Top critical review
Smart and creative, yet flawed
on July 20, 2011
It's terribly difficult to create a spinoff series, especially one like Doctor Who. When Russell T. Davies resurrected the mammoth U.K. pop culture phenomenon in 2005, it was met with roaring success by both veteran and first time viewers alike. Beginning with Season (or Series) 2 of the show, the Doctor began butting heads with a secretive and elite agency known as "Torchwood," commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1879 to combat the Doctor (whom they perceive as a reckless threat) and any alien or paranormal activities which may threaten the British empire. Somehow, Captain Jack Harkness (introduced in Season 1 of Doctor Who) has been tasked with heading up a branch of Torchwood based in modern day Cardiff. Now immortal thanks to Rose Tyler's resurrection at the end of Doctor Who Season 1, Harkness is mired under the weight of his own steely reserve, self-isolation and self-doubt.
The series begins with Harkness and his team bumping into Gwen Cooper, a police officer who witnesses the Torchwood team using a strange gauntlet to temporarily resurrect the corpse of a murder victim and gain information about his killer. After encountering Harkness directly, Gwen is given a drug which is designed to erase all memory of Torchwood and her experiences with Jack. It isn't enough however, and soon Gwen begins to experience repressed memories which trigger total recall. Gwen Cooper is brought on board as the newest Torchwood member, and her life turns upside down from thereon in.
The show contrasts sharply with Doctor Who in many ways. Although set in the same universe with overlapping storylines, Torchwood was designed specifically for adults, and makes use of mature and sexual themes as well as graphic violence and coarse language. Though Doctor Who can be dark in tone and bleak in delivery, Torchwood is doubly so. The show focuses specifically on the fragmented and broken team members who all suffer in some way, whether it be isolation, loneliness, rage or otherwise. Many times, Torchwood focuses less on specific alien or paranormal threats and instead shows humanity's gut reaction and subsequent behavior. It's full of character studies, but no character except Gwen Cooper truly grows during the series. This would be expanded upon with future Torchwood seasons, but the very first season seems to have trouble finding a proper footing. Too often the show gets bogged down with the "secret team in their secret base" cliché and only steps out to get their job done before rushing back into the darkness of their underground facility.
The show is also heavy on homosexual themes which seem less about one's character trait than an excuse to force a viewpoint. Director Russell T. Davies is openly gay, and his gay references were sprinkled throughout Season 1 of Doctor Who in less obvious fashion. Here, they seem blown completely out of proportion, quickly becoming the uncomfortable elephant in the room. It's one thing to have an openly gay (or perhaps omnisexual) character like Jack Harkness in a TV show, but it's quite another to continually throw the material in the viewer's face at the first possible opportunity, and smells of the director trying to push his personal preferences upon anyone who wants to watch his TV show.
Nevertheless, Torchwood is solid, and written with a mature hand. Too often the show provokes the viewer to think about what they would do in the place of the characters, and that's never a bad thing. It can be a little too bleak at times, but I doubt Davies had anything else in mind for Torchwood. If anything, Season 1 proves just how counterproductive the 13-episode serial format can be to the show. Not until Children of Earth did Torchwood truly find its place, and for viewers of Torchwood: Miracle Day, they can see the difference as plain as night to day.