Late autumn. The perfect time, you might think, if you’re a well-to-do BBC executive, for a dark, paranoid, suspenseful sci-fi drama, perhaps some sort of marriage between The X-Files, Doctor Who and Blade Runner. Something adult and scary, yet still recognisably British and warming. And who better to devise such a concoction as TV drama’s man-of-the-moment, Russell T Davies, responsible for bringing Doctor Who back to our screens? And who better to write and produce it than Chris Chibnall, creator of the BBC’s very, very own Born And Bred? Eh? I ask you?
Actually that’s not quite true, because the idea for such a programme, i.e. Torchwood (Wednesday, BBC 2, 9pm), originated with Davies at around the time he brought back Doctor Who. You can see his train of thought – ‘Torchwood’ is an anagram of ‘Doctor Who’ – what better reason to create a spin-off? Torchwood! How wonderful and clever! And things probably progressed from there, as you can imagine.
Strategically, bringing about a spin-off from Doctor Who is a good move, what with there still being a bit of Doctor Who-related mania hanging around. There are hundreds of badly-rendered figurines of David Tennant filling the shelves, but those figures may as well be of Russell T Davies himself, who seems emblematic of the popular traits in Doctor Who. He likes his drama slightly sentimental, slightly overblown, very camp and quite self-indulgent. This is handy, as he himself seems to fit that description in real life almost perfectly.
Head of the top-secret organisation around which Torchwood is based is a character from Doctor Who, the ‘omnisexual’ Tom Cruise-esque Captain Jack Harkness. But for the sake of added boys-own kitsch, he’s often just referred to as ‘Captain Jack’. Captain Jack is a peculiar figure. John Barrowman is excellent in the role, but the scripts often switch suddenly between two characterisations: sex-obsessed bisexual man from the future, or a slightly dark, mysterious figure we never quite get a grip on. They don’t really go hand-in-hand.
To add depth to the character, it’s revealed that he’s immortal – an excuse for endless scenes on top of the institute’s roof-top in the middle of Cardiff, as Jack does some moralising/soul-searching, whilst the camera swirls round maddeningly, 24-like, as if it’s some sort of paranoid thriller, which is almost laughable.
Torchwood’s a very obvious mixed bag. It seems to want to assert itself as a British X-Files, but more often it seems to resemble Spooks. At least, it would do, if Spooks were some sort of postmodern joke on modern drama written to appeal to grown-ups with a distinctly camp, childish sense of humour. Spooks seems to have pretty much the last word as far as most new BBC drama’s concerned; a huge, slick, tiresome monolith that tries to make you believe that the City of London’s the most exciting place planet Earth has to offer.
One of the daftest nods is the Torchwood team’s Batman-esque vehicle, which comes complete with integrated plasma screens that display maps of Cardiff. The vehicle is a big, black people-carrier. It really is the antithesis of cool. It’s even got those moronic blue LED’s taped to the sides, not to mention the word ‘Torchwood’ inscribed on the top in big, yellow lettering, just in case you fail to realise it’s property of a top-secret organisation.
And this is Torchwood’s problem – it’s incoherent. There’s the odd hint of darkness here and there, the odd rain-slicked alleyway, but otherwise Torchwood is much like Doctor Who with gratuitous sex, swearing and increased camp. If Davies and Chibnall really had wanted to create a British X-Files, they couldn’t have bollocked-up the job more if they’d tried. But one suspects that two childish middle-aged men were given more-or-less free rein to indulge themselves, and they grasped the opportunity with both hands. Does it work? It seems right for the time, but that’s not saying much. Watch it again in ten years time, and decide.