Torchwood Season One: I am Jack’s Unreliable Staff

Torchwood chooses style over logic, each and every time

Torchwood is aimed more for mature audiences than its spin-off parent Doctor Who. There’s swearing, graphic sex and violence, and greater emphasis on human corruptibility. Some episodes barely have space aliens (“Random Shoes“, “Combat“), while “Countrycide” has none.

Those mature themes, however, are expressed through American style conventions (specifically the 18-34 demographic of the WB/CW networks.) The sets are huge and stylish, lead actors are a bit too young for their positions, and interoffice romantic triangles are more complex than Tex Winter’s offense (The team’s most unlikable member slept with every female coworker.) It’s like watching an episode of Smallville or Buffy the Vampire Slayer with curse words.

Torchwood wants adult vocabulary, but none of the responsibility. Consider these Season One highlights:

  • Ianto sneaks his mid-conversion Cyberman girlfriend into HQ in “Cyberwoman” (hiding the body of one of her victims)
  • Tosh sneaks an alien into HQ in “Greeks Bearing Gifts
  • Gwen sneaks a “dead and loving it” Suzie Costello out in “They Keep Killing Suzie” She also treats Rhys, her live-in boyfriend, horribly (lies about what she’s doing for Torchwood, has an affair, then confesses to Rhys after drugging him with amnesia pills.)
  • Owen disobeys direct orders by opening the Time Rift in “Captain Jack Harkness
  • They all stage mutiny in “End of Days
  • Captain Jack abandons his own team without a word in “End of Days

These actions would be criminal in our world. On Torchwood, everything’s forgiven by the next episode. Captain Jack built a group less reliable than The A-Team.

These American genre conventions bring in a young audience, but they also undermine Torchwood‘s fantastic premise: How would we handle alien invasions without the Doctor? Classic and current Who provide some examples. The Brigadier killed hibernating Silurians in “Doctor Who and the Silurians“. PM Harriet Jones ordered ordered a hit on retreating Sycorax in “The Christmas Invasion.” Simply put, Torchwood could have been the hardest sci-fi program in history. Less Charmed, more Blade Runner.

There are some terrific things about Torchwood. “Out of Time” and “Captain Jack Harkness” were written and directed by women. The show portrays homosexuality and bisexuality in a mundane, understated manner. It’s fun watching Captain Jack develop between Doctor Who episodes “The Parting of the Ways” and “Utopia.”

So I’ll keep watching, knowing Torchwood will choose style over logic each and every time. Here’s to Captain Jack and his Howling, Unstable Commandoes!

Random Thoughts

  • Why is Jack so evasive about his past, especially about his relationship with the Doctor? It wouldn’t undermine his authority one iota.
  • More importantly, why is the rest of Team Torchwood so upset about his secrecy? In real life, employees are too busy with their jobs and lives to even think about their boss’s private life.
  • Given her actions in Season 1, how the Hell is Gwen “the conscience” of Torchwood?
  • Given his demeandor, how is Owen so desirable to every woman on Torchood?

The answer to all these questions is “Attracting a young audience with Americanized sci-fi genre rules for teenagers.”

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