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Oct 23, 2006

Hand in Glove

Now that’s how to do a pilot!

Long-term readers of the Tachyon site may recall that I caused a bit of a stink back in March last year by having the temerity to treat the return of our beloved Doctor Who with something less than warm affection. Given the sixteen year gap it was perhaps inevitable that anything less than perfection was going to disappoint; and the feeling of emptiness following ‘Rose’ still causes a few wry memories to surface after all this time. Perhaps I was too close to be objective. Perhaps I just wanted too much too soon. Perhaps I just had my head up my canonical arse. Either way, I fell out with the Tachyon uber-meister himself, no less. And very nearly lost my posting rights.

I don’t think there’s any chance of that happening this time.

With all the requisite hype that anything - but anything - Doctor Who related engenders these days finally out of the way, I am very happy to report that Torchwood’s pilot is good. Make that very, very good.

Which is strange, seeing as it pretty much does everything that the Who reboot did last year. Only better.

The similarities hardly need to be underlined. Plucky every-girl gets drawn into a fantastical world of aliens, technology and life beyond the grave; and ultimately finds it more enticing than the ho-hum domesticity of work, boyfriends and lasagnes that she secretly yearns to escape. So far, so Rose Tyler; except that for once Russell T Davies seems to have acknowledged the criticism of his sometimes heavy-handed attempts to ground the fantastic in the everyday. Giving PC Gwen Cooper a life that dovetails neatly between her believable likeability and her new role for the Torchwood organisation.

for once Russell T Davies seems to have acknowledged the criticism of his sometimes heavy-handed attempts to ground the fantastic in the everyday

And what an organisation. Operating on the periphery of either the police or the military, Torchwood is something of a cross between the various CSIs that seem to crop up on a regular basis around middle America and the Initiative group from Buffy season four. Which is apt, as Torchwood the show similarly wears its lineage on its sleeve. For one thing, all those aerial swoops that render Cardiff more like LA and the leading man standing around broodingly on rooftops gives the show just a smidgen of Angel-lite credos. And throw in an eclectic bunch of misfits and misanthropes and you’ve pretty much got the cast of Firefly too. Once more it seems that the 21st Century reboot of the Whoniverse has got more than a few fingerprints of a certain Joss Whedon smeared all over its format.

It’s a pretty perfunctory episode, to be honest, but necessarily so given the amount of info-dump that pilots by nature have to impart. The whole serial-killer sub-plot seems to peter out after ten minutes - only to be spectacularly resolved at the climax - and the story as a whole is little more than window dressing to ensure that Gwen moves from point A to point B within fifty minutes. But what’s important is that the characters are all set up efficiently - if in some cases rather scantily - and the whole thing looks very confident and very glossy. I’m certainly not one for style over substance, but in this case the sheer scope that this series hopes to cover requires one or two ‘Wow!’ moments along the way.

Once more it seems that the 21st Century reboot of the Whoniverse has got more than a few fingerprints of a certain Joss Whedon smeared all over its format

And as if we were in any doubt beforehand, it’s safe to say that the star of the show is the 51st Century’s answer to Freddie Mercury: Captain Jack Harkness. With his shit-eating, Tom Cruise-aping grin of perfect teeth and a swagger that only those born to play leading parts seem to have, John Barrowman takes to the role of show-anchor with all the style and panache that those five episodes oh-so long ago now always suggested he would. There’s also an increased depth to the Captain’s character that the next eleven Sundays should make a pleasure to endure; whilst the early revelation of Jack’s ‘big’ secret (providing you’d managed to avoid it in certain weekend listing magazines) is surely going to be a recurring meme throughout the season. With his easy mix of sexy charm and intense steel, at one moment I even contemplated Barrowman as a potential future Doctor. Until I realised that that would be over-egging the effect a tad too much.

Design-wise there are hardly any faults - both the Torchwood ‘hub’ (a mix of bat-cave gothic with Hannibal Lecter’s prison cell) and the cinematography (which gives Cardiff a gloss that few would have afforded it) are spot on. And the one alien face on view is another tour-de-force from Neil Gorton’s prophetic team (making the scene in which Gwen and one of the hospital porters mistake it for an ugly bloke all the more unlikely, to be honest). The humour’s handled very well, too - no farting aliens here - and is often used to undercut the tension like any good horror-based narrative. The pheromone gag with Owen Harper’s Lee Evans-alike geek is particularly funny; and while my first reaction to his character was weary resignation in the face of another Mickey-style piece of comic relief, by the end I found myself thinking he’ll actually prove to be one of the more memorable members of the team.

If only the parent show could surprise us like this more often…

But perhaps the piece de resistance of this opening gambit is in the spectacular demise of someone we had been led to believe would be one of the regulars. Killing off a brand new character may seem easy given the lack of audience loyalty, but Suzy’s exposure as the serial-killing black sheep of Torchwood’s Cardiff clan was still pretty shocking. And the fact that it was kept secret to all bar the message-board trawlers is surely this series’ first big coup. If only the parent show could surprise us like this more often…

Disappointments? Well, the whole swearing thing’s unnecessary, seeing as the adult subtext should do more than enough to mark this out as a post-watershed programme without resorting to playground-style use of four-letter words (which sound unintentionally comical instead). And perhaps one or two of the ‘fan’ moments were a little heavy-handed (if you’ll pardon the pun, seeing what Jack seems to be keeping floating in a jar of formaldehyde). But on the whole this is a very satisfying start for a series which already seems to have its own identity; and a very confident and intriguing one at that.

(The Bumper Book of Made-Up ‘Torchwood’ facts has this to say about Everything Changes: The Mill spent six weeks - using 232 special effect shots - to create the gap in Eve Myles’ teeth)

Comments

Not to be picky or anything, but this wasn't a pilot. A pilot is a sampler for the powers that be, and is usually able to stand alone should the series never get made.
This was the first episode of an already-commissioned series so the info-dump aspect wasn't really necessary and is probably my only criticism of it (I mean, there has to be some, right? Oh - the typography was awful but only ARs like me will have noticed that!)

I might do my own review soon - like everyone else, it seems, I liked this, but it only serves to show up new Doctor Who as light and unfulfilling. A ryvita to Torchwood's digestive with a big dollop of Brie on it.

Take out the blood and swearing and this is what Doctor Who should have been. They showed far worse at 6pm with Buffy...

Great review, Sean. I will post my thoughts later on in the week, just in case anyone who hasn't seen it yet reads it.

I thought it was great. Beats season 2 hands down!

Jonathan - by 'pilot' I of course meant 'first episode' and not any attempt to dileneate between shows that are 'commissioned' as a series and ones which are just 'pilots' which may (or may not) go to series.

Suddenly this thread has come to resemble a scene from 'Pulp Fiction'.

Jonathan - by 'pilot' I of course meant 'first episode' and not any attempt to dileneate between shows that are 'commissioned' as a series and ones which are just 'pilots' which may (or may not) go to series.

Suddenly this thread has come to resemble a scene from 'Pulp Fiction'.

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