Ten years ago, the success of Doctor Who gave birth to the spinoff series Torchwood. After a very rough start, it evolved; while it always had its highs and lows, Torchwood ultimately transformed into something far greater than its troubled beginnings—and it only really did it by cutting its links to Doctor Who.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Torchwood, mainly thanks to the fact that BBC Three—the UK channel aimed at being “trendy” BBC content for teenage audiences which produced the series—recently shut down and moved online, because that’s where “trendy” content pretty much lives now. I reminisced, and rewatched, and remembered how Torchwood slowly evolved from cheesy grittiness into a scifi show that challenged and questioned the genre in some truly satisfying ways.
But good lord, it really did start out rough. Torchwood was originally pitched as an adult side to the family-friendly world of Doctor Who, stories and scenarios that were too gory, sexy, or grim for the cheery Timelord to be part of. However, for all its intent, Torchwood began with anything but a sense of maturity. Instead of telling science fiction for adults, its idea of a mature tone was the fact that a) characters had a lot of sex with each other and b) people said the word “fuck”, gloriously rendered in a multitude of British accents (usually Welsh). It was pretty much uttered in every other sentence.
There was nothing adult about it. Instead, it was essentially teenaged—just as a teenager rebels against the cosiness of their family with edginess, Torchwood rebelled against Doctor Who’s concepts in a similarly “edgy” immaturity. Doctor Who has aliens? Oh, our first alien is a sex-mad alien who kills people by having sex! Doctor Who is about the camaraderie between The Doctor and his companion? Well, Torchwood’s staff pretty much despise each other, or want to have sex with each other, or both! Doctor Who has iconic monsters like the Cybermen?
Our Cybermen are sexy ladies with cyber boobs.
For the majority of its first season, Torchwood languished in this false sense of puerile maturity, its connection to Doctor Who a crutch that provided a rich world (and an excellent lead character in John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness) but also cursed Torchwood into a constant attempt to have a naughtier take on every aspect of the fantastical, slightly camp, family-friendly nature of it. But decades of Doctor Who couldn’t be rendered adult by a bit of blood and some heavy cursing—that way madness lies, as does the vast majority of Torchwood season one.
But then, something changed. Back to back, the first season’s ninth and tenth episodes, “Random Shoes” and “Out of Time,” both reflected a change in direction and tone that Torchwood would build upon for the rest of its time, an actual sense of maturity that made it adult drama and set it as a diametric opposite to Doctor Who. (It’s worth noting the episode immediately before them is about one of the Torchwood team members, Owen, getting caught up in an alien fight club, which is even lamer than it sounds.)
“Random Shoes” told an intimate tale that revolved around the death of a single young man and the potentially alien artifact he had in his possession almost all his life. It was about the randomness of death, moving on, and the strangeness of Doctor Who’s strange world, sparked by years of The Doctor’s adventures and the alien natures they left behind. It was a story that could never be told in Doctor Who, where people die left, right, and center every week whenever a monster attacks, with very little time to examine those deaths and their impacts on the normal people around The Doctor and all the corridor-running.
“Out of Time” was played with Doctor Who’s tropes even more, in a deeply sad manner. It dealt with a group of people who find themselves displaced through time from the 1950s into the present day, and how that impacted on both them and the Torchwood team. It looked at the intimate impact of time travel in a way Doctor Who rarely could by its very nature. Suddenly, Torchwood had found a rich vein it could tap into, a niche to make it its own. Instead of taking Doctor Who and its monsters and trying to add violence and swearing to it, Torchwood could intimately examine the world (well, Cardiff) and people that are left behind when The Doctor closes the doors of his TARDIS and flies away.
Naturally, it swung back in the opposite direction for the season finale which featured a giant devil-like demon called Abbaddon stomping around Cardiff city center and killing anyone its shadow fell upon. (This was also even lamer than it sounds.)
But that, in a way, makes my point: Torchwood was at its best when it kept the scale small and as un-Doctor Who as possible. Instead of the world or the galaxy being at stake, Torchwood shone when its plots were personal, when it was just the team or a handful of people in danger. Where death had meaning beyond a bunch of mooks being zapped by the alien of the week, but could be random and catastrophic to the people surrounded by it.
Torchwood’s second season slowly began to master that balance, and even its lapses into the teenage edginess at times were at least played for laughs rather than as an attempt to actually appear “mature.” It went on from strength to strength, culminating in the death of Owen Harper—a moment I’ve written about before—a tight arc where the major stake that had huge, emotional ramifications for the series was the death of a single man. It wasn’t even an “epic” death or sacrifice, it was one that was random and pointless, and because of that it incredibly tragic—a powerful, poignant moment that Doctor Who character Martha Jones was present for, almost as if symbolically passing the torch from Torchwood’s progenitor as it moved onto its own path.
After the second season, Torchwood went even further with the third season/miniseries Children of Earth, which cemented the show’s complete tonal difference to Doctor Who by transforming itself into a tense thriller that examined the darkness of humanity in a way the parent show could never truly dive into. Torchwood’s teenage rebellion was long behind it, replaced with a maturity that made the show must-watch, game-changing science fiction (something it arguably lost in its incredibly disappointing fourth outing, Miracle Day, which traded Torchwood’s tension and intimacy for grandiose, American-bound global shenanigans with little depth).
All it took was a realization that an adult take on Doctor Who needed to be more than a superficial layer of people saying “fuck.” By embracing the limits of being rooted in one place and in one time, and by taking a light to the shadows left unexplored by Doctor Who, Torchwood finally became the adult science fiction series it had always wanted to be.