On the recommendation of a friend I watched this 5 episode arc of Torchwood, and I was stunned by its brilliance. Torchwood is some kind of Dr. Who spin-off, which means that by rights I should hate it (I’m not a big fan of the good Doctor). It is about a UFO investigation unit based in Cardiff – yes, Cardiff – consisting of 2 humans and some kind of god straight out of the UFO universe, Dr. Jack Harkness, who wears a really badly clashing and naff combination of military overcoats and chinos, and can’t be killed by any means. This is a weird combination of people. Also Jack is in some kind of gay relationship with another investigator of undisclosed name (which could be Yantov but is impossible to understand in the show). So I suppose it’s an X-Files/Dr. Who/6′ Under kind of crossover show, made in England.
Hardly an auspicious beginning.
However, the series was brilliant in the best tradition of brilliant British TV – that is, dialogue, acting and tense pace sufficient to kill any costuming or special effects flaws. The premise is contact with an alien race who do some very bad things to kiddies, and a subsequently increasingly nasty series of increasingly immoral decisions that various people have to make, mostly in the best interests of everyone but themselves. It takes the kind of parlour-room, drunken moral debates we all had when we were 12 – would you kill 1 to save a thousand? and other assorted blandness – to a stunning and brilliant conclusion, in which you can’t fault anyone for putting aside their conscience, but everyone comes out looking very very bad. The final scenes involve breaking so many of the kind of taboo images that TV thrives on that one has to be satisfied. And best of all, the whole thing is carried off without even the slightest hint of a skerrick of a whiff of even the smallest implication that the taboos are being broken just in order to shock, or that the moral decisions involved are just university debating school stuff. By the beginning of the 4th episode I really felt like I was caught up in a life-and-death, future-of-the-race kind of moral decision, not a cheap university debate about whether I would rather kill the dog or the baby.
This of course is the essence of good science fiction, and so rarely done on tv or film – to try and use the speculative elements of the genre to create the kind of moral and intellectual positions which are not believable in normal fiction. And Torchwood does it at its best.
The plot is also blessedly free of inconsistencies or mistakes. There were a few things I thought could maybe have been done faintly better (I won’t list them here due to their intense spoileriness), but in discussion with others who have viewed the show I haven’t been able to conclude that they were very crucial or very obvious mistakes, so they’re probably just a matter of personal preference. And it is a rare series of tv episodes where everything just slots together in a complex and multi-layered story. Well done, Torchwood.
Also, finally, I thought the gay lead was done very well. It wasn’t until the show was over that I really even stopped to think about whether or not it had been done well, because it just fitted in. Sure, the gay thing was presented as unusual and surprising by family members who didn’t know, but it was presented to the viewer – treated like a privileged friend and ally of the lead characters, of course – it was presented as completely normal. This also is very rare in television.
I heartily recommend this show – 5 hours of gripping tv from beginning to end.