Wednesday, 11 February 2009

TV Archive: Torchwood: Everything Changes (2006)

By now you’ve probably seen the new official BBC trailer for the soon-come five-part Torchwood mini-series ‘Children of Earth’, due to debut on BBC1 later this year. Much as I enjoy Torchwood – and despite its flaws I do enjoy it because it’s usually fun in an outrageous sort of way – it’s not a show I’ve ever felt the need to revisit very often. The odd episode occasionally strikes me as eminently rewatchable shortly after broadcast for all sorts of reasons but it’s very rare that I’ll decide, on a whim, to sit and watch one of the unlikely exploits of Captain Jack and his band of very special not-so-secret agents. In truth I’ve not given the show a lot of thought since series two ended last March – apart from eye-balling some location filming for the new series (videos still available!) and penning a couple of short stories just because a few ideas popped into my head.

But looking at the trailer for what seems to be a very promising, more focussed batch of Torchwood episodes set me to thinking that maybe it was time I went back and reacquainted myself with the series, just to remind myself what’s good about it and, on occasion, what’s not so good. I decided to rewind to the beginning, to the show’s very first episode, ‘Everything Changes’, first screened on BBC3 back in October 2006. At the time it presented as a solid, workmanlike effort from the pen of Russell T Davies, an effective if ultimately unexceptional introductory episode setting up the show’s premise and its central characters but its impact was rather diluted by the sheer playground idiocy of the follow-up ‘Day One’ screened immediately afterwards in a ‘new series’ double bill. The latter was such a sleazy, eye-rolling juvenile effort (sex alien on the loose, ooh, saucy!) that it had me, for one, severely worried for the future of the series (was this really the slick X Files/This Life hybrid I’d been promised?) and totally undermined the quiet, subtle work of Davies’s debut. Because, viewed now, away from the bang and crash of two full series, ‘Everything Changes’ is a remarkably understated, compelling piece of work, a script which tackles its potentially-ludicrous subject matter (a secret organisation under Cardiff fighting aliens?? Away with you!) and presents it with a four-square believability the show’s rare achieved since.

‘Everything Changes’ follows the template of Davies’ Dr Who series opener ‘Rose’. Here the audience learns about Torchwood (the organisation) through the eyes and ears of a naïve young female police officer, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) who experiences their unorthodox working practices during what appears to be a brutal murder investigation in rainy Cardiff city centre. Gwen – and the audience – are intrigued by this bunch of hi-tech know-it-alls who muscle onto the scene with barely a word of warning, use a magic glove to resuscitate an apparently dead man and then swan off into the night in their Big Car. Captain Jack, lantern-jawed and flowing of greatcoat, is the most intriguing of all; to Gwen he’s the leader, the American man of mystery who’s obviously in charge of the group. To (some of) the audience he’s the bloke off Dr Who last seen being exterminated by Daleks, revived by super-Rose and left behind on a space station hundreds of thousands of years in the future. How come he’s here, now, in Cardiff of all places?

Watching the episode now I’m struck by how unusual it is in comparison to what was to come in later episodes. Davies, typically, nails the tone and style of the series in ways other writers have never yet managed (and I’m hopeful for a more even tone from the next batch of episodes as Davies has written a couple of them). ‘Everything Changes’ is an odd, disorientating episode because of its naturalism in the face of the absurd. Cardiff has never looked better and yet has never looked grimmer. Rain-washed streets, gloomy night skies, unusual, jagged, angular cityscapes. The dialogue is sharp, terse, to the point; the characters – even more outlandish ones like Captain Jack (who is here markedly less outlandish than he was before or has been since) – speak like real people, all unfinished, ungrammatical sentences, lots of stopping and starting and general bemusement. The people here speak the way people really do, not the way people do in TV drama where it’s all carefully-considered speeches and word-perfect syntax. Gwen and her chum PC Andy, at the crime scene, are initially more concerned with some forthcoming social occasion than the blood-splattered body splayed out in front of them in the rain. Gwen, after her first arms-length contact with the Torchwood crew, returns home to her chunky partner Rhys who, typically, is absorbed by the triviality of his life – the antics of his mate Banana Boat and their own mundane domestic arrangements. This all acts as a counterpoint to the wider world outside, a world where there’s a Rift in Space and Time running right through Cardiff and hardly anyone knows about it. The only people who do know about it are a very odd collection indeed…

The theme of ‘Everything Changes’, it seems to me, is Torchwood the organisation itself and the effect it has on the people who work for it. Jack’s the head of this little group of heroes working out of a cavernous underground sci-fi HQ (it has its own pet pterodactyl, you know) and while he’s a man of mystery he’s clearly very much in control, very focussed on his ‘job’ and his place as front-line defence against the flotsam and jetsam which wanders through the Rift. It’s the rest of the Torchwood crew who really provide the more interesting meat of the episode, even if it’s displayed in rather broad strokes in Davies’ script. Working for Torchwood is more than just a job, it can become an obsession. So when Jack tells Gwen that all the alien tech which washes up in Cardiff stays “on the base” we instantly cut to a string of sequences which demonstrate that this resolutely isn’t the case. Mousy Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori) takes a device home which can ‘read’ books in full and transfer the text to a computer screen (the nights must just have just flown by round at Tosh’s), Dr Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) uses alien pheromones to increase his own physical attraction to women (and men!) he fancies a bit of a quickie with and, most tellingly, second-in-command Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) can’t resist taking the resurrection glove home and experimenting on it with dead flies. If this strikes you as not entirely normal behaviour that’s because it seems pretty indicative of how Torchwood gets into the blood of the people who work for it – and once again Davies uses the economy of a handful of quick, dialogue-free sequences to emphasise this to the audience in much the same way he establishes the crushing mundanity of Rose’s existence in the first few scenes of that Dr Who debut in 2005.

Torchwood’s mission statement is never clearer than in the taut confrontation between Gwen, who’s had her recent memories of Torchwood erased courtesy of Captain Jack and a swift dose of retcon (Jack also taking alien tech “off the base”) and Sizue who, it turns out, has been the serial killer all along – but purely in the interests of scientific research. Suzi’s become fascinated by the resurrection glove absolutely to beyond the point of obsession. She needs to learn more about the glove, what it can do, how it works – and the only way she feels she can do it is by randomly killing and bringing the victims back to life. It’s an obsession which has consequences later on in the series, of course but here we see how it’s led her off the straight and narrow and turned her, inadvertently, into a ruthless psychopathic killer. Holding Gwen at gunpoint in the shadow of the Millennium Centre’s water tower in Cardiff Bay, Suzi, realising that Gwen is a bit special and that her game is every probably up, euologises about life working for Torchwood and how the ‘shit’ keeps making its way to earth. It’s a Universe-view almost diametrically opposed to the one presented on Dr Who where, despite all the monsters and the death and destruction, the Universe is depicted as a bold, bright, splendid place. Torchwood’s Universe is badder, bleaker, far more pessimistic and depressing. Ultimately Suzi realises she can’t live without Torchwood in her life and takes the only way out – she blows her own head off. As episode endings go it’s not exactly up there with the exuberance of Rose running in slo-mo into the TARDIS or Sarah Jane in her own series constantly gazing up and the sky and marvelling at how lovely everything is.

But then that’s Torchwood. The Universe is full of scum and Torchwood has to try and keep a lid on it. Working for Torchwood is presented as a joyless, thankless and every often short-lived occupation with a high mortality rate – but it’s a job which is almost impossible to give up and very often impossible to reconcile with anything recognisable as a normal life. That’s what ‘Everything Changes’ is setting up and that’s where the series ultimately takes us…

I’d go as far as to say that ‘Everything Changes’ is the best episode of Torchwood to date. It’s edgy, fearless, uncompromising and dramatically unconventional. Visually it looks gorgeous – Torchwood HQ the Hub is a masterpiece of set design even though I’ve never really been able to get a proper sense of its architecture and where things are in relation to one another, but then maybe that’s the point. Attempts to make Cardiff look like Los Angeles are always doomed to failure but stylish aerial shots of the city at night do their best and add to the atmosphere but maybe the episode goes too far in trying to depict Jack as some sort of super-hero, defending the city as he stands on top of tall buildings gazing out across his domain – frankly it looks a bit silly. Equally silly is the final scene where Jack has a heart-to-heart with Gwen, tells her he can't die and invites her to join Torchwood to replace the late Suzi. The camera pulls back and we see that, for no apparent or logical reason, they’re standing right on the roof of the Millennium Centre. Why? how did they get up there? Why did they go up there? There are plenty of bars and coffee shops in the Bay – the centre’s got one itself! - which might be better venues for ersatz job interviews than an inaccessible rooftop. But that’s just me; it looks nice and dramatic and I’m sure that’s why it’s there and ultimately these are just minor questionable moments in an episode which, over two years on, genuinely surprised me by its effectiveness as a piece of story-telling, an episode which rewards rewatching (often the case with Davies’ episodes) and which captures the ‘spirit’ of Torchwood in ways that so many episodes which followed so frustratingly weren’t able to.

So as we coast towards a new era for Torchwood, the five-part ‘Children of Earth’ serial which will expose the series to a potential huge new audience and which, one way or another, will determine the show’s future, you could do a lot worse than take yourself right back to the start and remind yourself just how good Torchwood has been – and hopefully can be again.

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