The basic set-up is related in John Barrowman’s voice-over for the opening theme: “Torchwood: Outside the government, beyond the police. Fighting for the future on behalf of the human race.” In practical terms, that means dealing with alien threats, and other things that might come through the time/space rift, before they become threats. The initial team is composed of Capt. Jack Harkness (Barrowman), who is not of this time or place; Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), the team’s medic; Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), “Tosh,” the team’s computer whiz; Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), the general factotum; and Suzie Costello (Indira Varna), who gets killed off almost immediately. She is replaced by Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), a policewoman who stumbles across Torchwood while working on a case of her own.
If you’re wondering at the preponderance of Welsh names among the characters, it’s because the action takes place in and around Cardiff, which is the site of a rift in the time/space continuum. Things fall through and have to be dealt with. In the first episode, “Everything Changes,” there’s the matter of a series of strange deaths, which Gwen is investigating, that have an extra-terrestrial cause. The episode serves to establish the cast and milieu, and does so quite effectively.
I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow of the first season, but I should explain why this series caught me, when I’ve been more or less indifferent to Dr. Who for years.
First, the story lines for the episodes are fairly original and quite creative. There’s no getting away from well-worn tropes in anything that even remotely smacks of science fiction, but the writers on this series manage to transform those tropes into something engaging, in part, I think, because the focus is intimate: there are no massive invasions, no great end-of-the-world scenarios, just small local mysteries that could have world-wide implications, leading to sometimes desperate efforts by the Torchwood team.
I think the key element here is the acting, which is superb. One advantage of an ongoing series like this is that there is time for the actors to develop fully rounded characters. The potential is there in any series, and the Torchwood cast make full use of it (with an able assist from the writers — you don’t find out everything about anyone right off the bat). I remember from my own days as an acting student (yes, I did that, too) my teachers’ insistence on “playing the subtext” — in other words, revealing what the characters are not saying. There’s a lot of that here. The example that hit hardest — and I use that phrase with full realization of the implications — is the next-to-last episode of the season, “Captain Jack Harkness.” (Spoiler alert) Tosh and Jack, while investigating an abandoned dance hall, find themselves back in 1941, when the dance hall was used for social gatherings for service members. They meet the real Capt. Jack Harkness (Matt Rippy), whose name Jack had taken after his death (which we learn is going to happen the next day), and Jack engages him in conversation while Tosh is trying to figure out how to re-open the rift so they can get home. The mutual attraction between the two Captain Jacks is very understated and is really a matter of subtext: the time and place (Wales, 1941) wouldn’t permit of any open displays, but it comes through. The tension resolves itself in a passionate kiss between the two men, and then, as the rift opens and Tosh is calling Jack to get going, he returns and takes the Captain his arms for a dance. (End spoiler) The mix of tenderness, protectiveness, relief, trust, sorrow in this tiny little scene is devastating, all without a word being spoken. The acting for the series as a whole is close to that level, and that, I think, more than anything else, is the big draw: you get involved with these people, to the extent that even if you aren’t sure you want to watch a particular episode, you find yourself caught up in it anyway.
Viewed on Netflix, where it is, sadly, no longer available. The series has been released on DVD, and is available on several online sites, including iTunes and Amazon.
(BBC Wales, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC Worldwide Productions, 2006)