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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Torchwood: A Post-Mortem

     In 2005, there was perhaps the most powerful hype-train that ever rolled down the hype-tracks when Doctor Who, long thought dead having been off the air since 1989 (save for a single TV movie in 1996) was returned, in grand fashion, to television. The new series brought a new generation of fans, watching it on BBC, later on the sci-fi channel, and probably causing the biggest spike in torrent traffic until Game of Thrones came along to trounce everyone. Among the new ideas and characters brought about by the show was omnisexual time-pirate “Captain” Jack Harkness. Charismatic and handsome, with the shiniest, toothiest shit-eating grin you'll ever see, John Barrowman was a one-man sexual revolution in science fiction, and caught on quickly as one of Who's most popular characters of all time.

      So popular, in fact, that when he was left behind after 5 episodes, they gave him his own series. Playing off the “Torchwood” meme that was going on in the series at the time, Harkness was running his own chapter of the covert alien-napping agency that was featured on the mother-show, in what was billed as a darker, more mature Doctor Who for grown-ups. But was it? And what happened to Torchwood? Why isn't it still around?

      Well, In reality, the show started strong, complete with a shock ending for the first episode from big-name actor Indira Varma, but quickly devolved into a muddled mess of swearing and sex. From Gwen cheating on oblivious husband Rhys to Owen nicking a pheromone spray (and endeing up with a small crowd of people in a club having sex with him (creepy, Owen..)), to Jack and Ianto playing Naked Hide The Pocketwatch, the first series could hardly catch its breath from all various forms of sex that kept happening. The stories didn't help the situation, as multiple “sex monsters of the week” popped up, including a gas that possessed people to have sex with it, an alien having sex with a member of the team, and a girl that Ianto was having sex with turned into a robot zombie. This turned a lot of people off to the first season, and led to dwindling ratings, causing quite a few people to miss some late-season good episodes, including the one with the return of a lost teammate, the friendly ghost episode, and some more of Jack Harkness's backstory.

Series 2 was stronger, starting with Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer playing basically Spike from Buffy the Vampire slayer, only a time agent (like Harkness) instead of a Vampire, a parable about terrorism, and a touching story of a WW1 soldier with PTSD. It stumbled a little with a meat-whale and a self-insert fan-fic character gone wrong, but came back strong with an arc that guest-starred Martha Jones from Doctor Who and went into a mild-body-horror storyline with Owen. The rest of the series fizzled a bit after that, culminating in the grand tradition of Torchwood: Somebody on the team's gonna die.

     After Series 2, the show's format changed, and I like to think it changed for the better. Dropping from a 13 episode series to a six-episode miniseries tightened it up, and allowed it to focus on one larger over-arching story instead of several smaller stories, and gave the remaining characters real room to grow. The budget being concentrated into less episodes brought us things like a larger scale and more fantastical effects, including Jack Harkness being blown to smithereens only for his body to reform itself slowly – and very, very painfully. The critical acclaim for Torchwood was at its peak around this time, as well, and Children of Earth, the official name of the miniseries, is remembered fondly among the fanbase.

      After Children of Earth, there was a year without Torchwood, but lots of speculation. Eventually, there was news. Strange news. The BBC was teaming with STARZ to produce a new season of Torchwood. That would be Miracle Day. The premise was simple, but effectively gruesome in its execution. People stopped dying. Gunshot wounds stayed open. Automobile accident victims were broken and twisted, but wouldn't die. Someone burnt to a cinder was still conscious, awake, and in pain. Hospitals were overrun, and the world fell into chaos. The only person who could still die was the one man who previously couldn't: Captain Jack Harkness. Reviews were (rightly) mixed on this. Jack and Gwen returned, and scenes with them felt very true to the show's roots, but newcomers like Mekhi Phifer and Bill Paxton felt very out of place in what was very clearly a British scifi show transplanted to American soil.

     So where is Torchwood? Is it dead? Can it truly die? Russel T Davies swears he's not done with the show, but we haven't had any news in over a year, and that last news was basically “development limbo.” John Barrowman, meanwhile, has been a recurring baddie over on the CW's surprise hit Arrow. Burn Gorman's had roles in Dark Knight Rises, Pacific Rim, and Game of Thrones. Others in the cast have had.. varying amounts of work since. Would they come back? I think Barrowman and Eve Myles would. They genuinely seemed to enjoy the roles they played. But the real question is can Torchwood overcome the curse that afflicts it every time they try, in that the seasons start out strong, but fizzle, with a corresponding ratings drop? And in what form? It's spent as much time now in mini-series format as it has in episodic format, and the mini-series format has much more critical acclaim.

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