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Torchwood: The Complete Original UK Series

(BBC; US DVD: 19 Jul 2011)

Torchwood. Outside the government beyond the police. Tracking down alien life on Earth and arming the human race against the future. The 21st century is when everything changes. And you’ve gotta be ready.


A spin-off of Russell T. Davies’ revival of Doctor Who, Torchwood is a more adult cousin to the series. Davies manages to retain much of Doctor Who’s humor and irreverence even in the face of more serious and momentous events.  While both shows share themes and a specific charm, Torchwood is interested in larger, more ambiguous questions.


The series is set in Cardiff, Wales, as there is a rift in time and space that brings a largeer proportion of alien life to the area than elsewhere in the world. Torchwood is the secret organization in charge of dealing with alien creatures and technology, all the while never alerting the traditional authorities of their real purposes.  Known only as a “special ops” group, the Torchwood team is able to charge into cases with little explanation and full authorization, making for a completely autonomous involvement. 


The team is comprised of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the charistmatic leader of Torchwood; Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), a medical doctor; Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), resident computer genius and mathematician; Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), office assistant and eventual full member; and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), a former police officer, and when the series begins, the group’s newly-recruited part of the team. 


While each member serves an important and equally essential role, it is Gwen who is the surrogate for the audience. Her introduction to Torchwood mirrors that of the viewer. In fact, her connection to the outside world is one that is crucial in her work at Torchwood. In essence, she serves as the voice for those innocently affected in their work to monitor and control alien life on Earth. This link to the ‘real’ world is one that she must also reconcile with what is often required in her new job, especially as it relates to her romantic relationship with Rhys (Kai Owen), whom she must repeatedly lie to.


In dealing with characterization, the mystery of Captain Jack Harkness is one that follows through the run of the series. His origins at Torchwood, his long and storied past, and his secrecy all make for a character never quite within grasp. Snippets of his personal life, along with his strengths and weaknesses are provided, but sparsely, and in turn, he takes on almost mythic hero proportions. 


Barrowman and Myles are the obvious leads, but their chemistry is mirrored amongst all the characters.They may at times come off as prickly, or selfish, or just not very nice, but they nevertheless manage engage the viewer precisely because of how human they are, particularly in contrast to some of the more unseemly alien and government counterparts. 


The science fiction elements that make up the series are obviously a key component, but they are not at the expense of well-rounded, three-dimensional characters and relationships.  More often than not, Torchwood is as emotionally affecting as it is supernaturally adept, and most impressively, it is almost instantly so. Torchwood excels in bringing humanity to the strange and the mysterious. Whether from some of the alien creatures they encounter, or from the team members dealing with seemingly unbelievable happenings, they all inspire an empathy that makes them relatable and likeable, even despite themselves, at times.


Torchwood is a complex show in that the big questions and dilemmas are neither answered easily nor neatly. Death is omnipresent in the series and is handled in direct, sometimes uncomfortable ways, but its always authentically presented in the context of the episode. Rather than taking the easy or well established way out, Torchwood upends many of the tropes that have come to be associated with a science fiction series, and in turn, it sometimes offers less traditionally satisfying resolutions.


Sexual orientation and gender roles also play a prominent role in the series. Torchwood is unconcerned with playing out rigid standards of sexuality; rather, they are loosely addressed and in the series’ universe, ultimately unremarkable. In many ways, the ordinary approach in portraying sexuality and gender makes a greater point than an explicit telling or heavy handed lesson ever could, and therefore offers an unexpected originality to the series, as well.


Torchwood is the rare series that manages to bring the equally bizarre and epic to life while still maintaining consistent characterization and emotional resonance. Culminating in the excellent five-part Torchwood: Children of Earth, the UK series goes out in a big way, both in terms of story and character portrayal. In fact, the final chapter of the UK series is the most ambitious and shocking in a series filled with such events.  While the Starz network is beginning a new UK/US continuation of the series, the wholly UK series is wonderfully original and enjoyable, and in turn, feels complete and gratifying all on its own. 


This DVD set is full of special features, such as deleted scenes, commentaries, tons of episode featurettes, a gag reel, and more. It’s clear that Torchwood was very well documented behind-the-scenes making for a complete picture of the series that is rounded out by the set’s full treatment.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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