Torchwood: The Evolution of British Sci-Fi


We Brits love Sci-Fi; we can’t get enough of it. Trouble is, largely due to budgets, we don’t make much of it. This isn’t to say we have not been inventive and created some classic TV series: Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy; Day of The Triffids; Quatermass and the granddaddy of them all, Doctor Who.

With the huge success of the 2005 reboot, series creator Russell T Davies wanted to build a franchise on the popularity of the new Doctor Who. The kids got the wonderfully enjoyable Sarah Jane Adventures and the adults got Torchwood. It’s no secret that Davies is a big Joss Whedon fan. New Doctor Who follows the Buffy format, monster of the week and the long running ‘big bad’. Having a grown-up, Doctor Who spin-off seemed like a natural progression.

Torchwood is the story of seemingly immortal former Time Agent Captain Jack Harkness, as he rebuilds the Torchwood Institute after the fateful Battle of Carney Wharf. Set inCardiff, Jack has assembled a small team of geeky oddballs to investigate the alien threats than come through the Time Rift. This is all seen through the eyes of new recruit, WPC Gwen Cooper.

When it premièred on BBC Three in 2006, it gained the highest ratings for a digital channel as well as some very mixed reviews. Season two was commissioned and just over a year later, it debuted on BBC Two: again a success but with just a much of a mixed reception as its predecessor. Season three seemed inevitable.

I found the first season difficult but silly fun. The sex scenes felt unnecessary, the swearing didn’t add anything and some very corny dialogue made even the better episodes fall flat.

In the second season the tone was more consistent. There were some truly inspired ideas:   the reanimation and subsequent decomposition of Owen Harper springs to mind. Notable guest stars included Buffy and Angel legend James Marsters, Alan Dale, Richard Briers and Freema Agyeman reprising her role as Martha Jones.

I wanted to enjoy Torchwood as an extension of the Who-niverse but it never felt like the sum of its parts and somewhat of a missed opportunity.

Budget restrictions cut the episode count for season three to just five one-hour installments, but with the ‘consolation prize’ of a promotion to prime-time BBC One. When Torchwood: The Children of Earth aired over five nights in 2009, the mini series was not only a ratings winner, but the critical praise was universally good. This was the grown up British sci-fi show we had been promised three years before. This was event television.

Directed by Doctor Who regular Euros Lynn and written mostly by Davies, Children of Earth is a superior science fiction conspiracy thriller. The action scenes are impressive and Davies pulled no punches when it came to offing one of the original characters. What also works well is that each episode raises the stakes as the story unfolds and seemingly minor characters play important roles. Particular mention goes to Peter Capaldi as the politician concerned for his family, but given too much responsibility at the heart of the global crisis.

The fourth run was sure to go into production straight away, wasn’t it? News was circulating the internet that 20th Century Fox were considering making an American version. Davies and his producers were in talks with the studio, and for a while it seemed that Torchwood would go through its own regeneration, but the deal collapsed.

After Children of Earth, returning to the old format would be a step backwards and US cable channel Starz agreed.

In striking a ten episode deal in partnership with BBC Worldwide, Starz wanted to continue the show with its remaining cast, while at the same time, introduce enough new elements to feel fresh. However, as parent show Doctor Who knows all too well, this is a risky business. The 1996 TV Movie was intended to kick-start a new series as a joint venture between the BBC, Universal Television and the Fox Network. Airing to tepid reviews and only modest ratings however, Doctor Who would remain off our screens for a further nine years.

Torchwood has had to prove itself every season. Evolving each time, it has moved channels twice and has grown in ambition to tell bigger and bolder stories. The format has changed: gone is the Monster of the Week, replaced by a long running story arc.

If this new hybrid series can recapture the intensity of Children of Earth on a bigger scale, this will be must see TV. From the trailers for Miracle Day, the stakes appear to be higher than ever before. After the world’s population stop dying, CIA  agent Rex Matheson investigates the cause, leading him to the long-disbanded Torchwood: “..some kinda British intervention agency.”

Davies is clearly serious about the quality. Joining the writing team are: Doris Egan (House, Tru Calling, Dark Angel); John Shiban (X-Files, Breaking Bad, Supernatural); John Fay (Clocking Off, Primeval) and perhaps most notably, Jane Espenson. Some of her credits include Battlestar Galactica, Warehouse 13, Firefly, Dollhouse, Angel and of course, Buffy. Having a sci-fi heavyweight working on four of the episodes bodes well for the overall series.

It’s not just behind the camera where things have changed. Joining the cast are Bill Pullman (Independence Day), Mekhi Phifer (E.R), Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) and guest stars Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), John de Lancie (Star Trek TNG) and Wayne Knight (Seinfeld). Sadly, there’s no return for James Marsters as Captain John Hart this time round.

Considering how guarded we are over US versions of our successful shows, joint collaborations with American partners is surely a better option than a flat-out remake. Life On Mars, Spaced, Men Behaving Badly, Cracker, Red Dwarf, Coupling and Absolutely Fabulous have all tried and failed. Only the long running The Office: An American Workplace and the recent Being Human, have been the exceptions and the forthcoming Prime Suspect also looks intriguing. Time will tell with Shameless and MTV’s Skins interpretation.

When ITV’s Primeval looked to be extinct, an unexpected deal between ITV, Watch, Impossible Pictures, BBC Worldwide and ProSieben, spawned two more seasons, with spin-off and big screen versions currently in the works. While I am not a fan of Primeval in particular, I’d like to see more British shows continue in partnerships, rather than be completely restarted.

I hope Torchwood has finally found a permanent home on Starz and further seasons will be developed with the BBC. Who knows, this trans-atlantic marriage could pave the way for new original programming, combined the best of British and the Sates.  Look out for my full review when Torchwood: Miracle Day comes to BBC One in the summer.

Chris

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4 comments

  1. Great article. Interesting to know about the background and the writers as well as the usually reviewed actors. Will definitely watch Torchwood.

  2. Interesting point of view but not one that I share.Agree the second season was more consistent and the actors involved found their stride.One of the highlights for me was the charismatic interaction between the relatively unknown actors,the relationships and humour along side the syfy.It felt innovative in its take it or leave it approah to sexual orientation and quirky sense of humour.
    In contrast Children of Earth,once you took out the shock elements,was repetitious and borderline pretentious overarticulating the the morality and message.Starz is known for it’s sensationalised block buster approach not for its complex story telling,innovation or subtlety and is unlikely to reign in the the excesses of COE.So although I would agree that collaboration with acclaimed networks such as HBO might be the way forward for British syfy Miracle Day is unlikely to provide an innovative approach that will move the genre forward.The publicity seems to suggest that what we will get is a typical action packed blockbuster approach which is now the current trend.

  3. MIW1Now an HBO/British Sci-fi team up, now that sounds like a winning formula. HBO and BBC worked well together on Rome so this could very well be a way forward for the right series.

    I love odd and quirky sci-fi, there is something very British about it. I hope that some of the humour is retained for the new series and being on Starz who gave us Spartacus: Blood and Sand I doubt anything will be toned down. I agree that Miracle day is unlikely to take the genre to brave new worlds, however if it’s a success then maybe other American networks will see the potential in collaborations in the future.

  4. Update: MTV have axed Skins after just one season, in a recent statement MTV said “‘Skins’ is a global television phenomenon that, unfortunately, didn’t connect with a U.S. audience as much as we had hoped.  We admire the work that the series creator Bryan Elsley did in adapting the show for MTV, and appreciate the core audience that embraced it.”

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