Doctor Who rekindled the sci-fi genre. Now Torchwood, its urban spin-off, is fanning the flames, says Sally Kinnes
To its creator, Russell T Davies, Torchwood is “an urban thriller with a sci-fi element”. To Chris Chibnall, one of its writers, it is “a dark, wild, sexy adult drama”. Either way, Torchwood is the latest series to break out of Doctor Who’s universe and land in its own dimension, which turns out to be somewhere beneath Cardiff. Having rescued Doctor Who from its 16-year oblivion, Davies has taken one of its characters (the sexy charmer Captain Jack Harkness), combined him with a long-standing idea for a science-fiction drama and created a Welsh thriller for adults.
Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who. “The two shows share DNA,” says Chibnall, “but Torchwood is a different animal. It’s about 21st-century life in the city. It tells us something about the nature of evil in our society, but it’s not about technobabble. You get more of an emotional hit. People really feel what is going on around them, and Harkness is a slightly more troubled character than the Doctor.”
Torchwood, as Harkness (John Barrowman) puts it in episode one, is an organisation that is “separate from the government, outside police jurisdiction and beyond the United Nations”. It catches aliens that pop up through the temporal rift that Cardiff doesn’t realise it is sitting on, then grabs their technology before someone else does. It is a bit like a secret but supercharged FBI with a penchant for pizzas.
Designed to be dark and funny, it features cybernised women, characters with names such as Ianto Jones and an earth so obviously polluted that Harkness can detect recycled oestrogen in the weather. “Contraceptives in the rain,” he says, tasting the rain drops. “Love this planet.”
Following the takeaway trail Torchwood has left behind it, PC Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) tracks down the unit. “She has exactly the same role as Rose in Doctor Who,” Davies says. “She is the ordinary person who stumbles into something extraordinary and finds herself their equal.”
When it began, Davies imagined Torchwood would be a crime show with added aliens. But as it developed, it morphed into something else, something best summed up, he says, by an episode in which a character gets a pendant that allows her to hear other people’s thoughts. “Imagine hearing what other people think of you. That was one of our purposes, to explore people, and when I saw that episode, I thought, ‘That’s what this show was invented for’,”
Davies explains. “All the cruelty of what best friends think of you, and the selfishness of people. But there are moments of nobility and grace. It’s very human. There are times when you feel uplifted and people strive to find something positive, and there are friendships that survive.”
If science fiction is a way to say something about the world, what Davies wants to say is that there is a happy ending. “I think pessimism is easy. It’s very sixth-form to say the world is terrible and we’re all going to die. Though Torchwood is a much darker world than Doctor Who, it is all about optimism. I think, if you put people in terrible circumstances, some — not all, but some — will find a way out. I think that is the point of fiction, to be optimistic and to shape an ending. That’s why it exists in the first place.”
Certainly, Davies can feel optimistic about what the success of Doctor Who has done for sci-fi. Like a character in Torchwood who can revive the dead, he has rescued it from a kind of far-off planet inhabited by nobody but Trekkies. “There was a moment when everything changed, and I can tell you exactly when it was,” he says. “It was in 1990, when Star Trek: The Next Generation was scheduled at 6pm on BBC2. If they had run it at 8pm on BBC1, science fiction would never have fallen off the radar. The Next Generation ran for seven years, with 26 episodes a year. It wasn’t my favourite show — one of the problems was that they were members of the military — but it was a good, solid, enjoyable programme, and if it had been shown at peak time, it would have kept the sci-fi world alive.” Instead, it became a cult, a genre downgraded to the edges, rather as Pluto was recently booted out of the brotherhood of planets.
Now the genre has a new life force. ITV is making Primaeval, a multimillion-pound sci-fi series, Doctor Who has become the Christmas television highlight and Davies is making a second spin-off for CBBC, The Sarah Jane Adventures. “People are so snotty in television and say, ‘You’re not making a kids’ show, are you?’ Well, f*** off.”
As for setting Torchwood in Cardiff, Davies is on a personal mission to make Wales mainstream. “Torchwood is being made in Cardiff, and I think you should show where you are. I get fed up with seeing everything being made in London or Manchester and Welsh is one of the least heard accents on television. I want to make it as acceptable as Scottish or Irish, and setting it in Cardiff widens the whole voice of British television.” So, memo to all aliens: if you are thinking of coming to earth, Cardiff is where you will find your friends.
Captain Jack's back
John Barrowman was starring in Anything Goes in the West End when he got the offer of a Whovian’s dreams: would a performer best known for socking Cole Porter, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim across the footlights consider a shift to television sci-fi? “Since I was a kid, I’ve been a Doctor Who fan; it is so in my DNA, in my genes, that it’s not even funny,” was his immediate response.
And so it was that the square-jawed Barrowman landed the role of Captain Jack Harkness, first for a limited run on Doctor Who, alongside Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, and now in a spin-off series of his own. “When I read the script, I said, ‘This is perfect.’ It’s a role I could really get my teeth into, because it’s a lot like me. I actually said to them, ‘Look, you would be making a little boy’s dream come true.’”
Barrowman is relating his enthusiasm over tea during a whistle-stop trip to London before returning to Cardiff, where Torchwood is filmed, for an early Sunday call. He grins as he notes what was necessary to play Jack, at least as the role was originally presented. “They said he was a time agent who was a matinée-idol type. And, you know, I’ve done many matinées,” he laughs, “and had a lot of idols.
“From a character who was only meant to be in five episodes, it’s turned out that I’m in my own series, plus I’m going back into Doctor Who as well. Jack is the only character who will go back and forth between the series, because the Doctor can’t.” How does Jack stack up in the Doctor Who world? “He’s a little more adult, because of his sexuality,” Barrowman says. “He’s from the 51st century, so he doesn’t label people. If he fancies it, he’ll go for it, whether human — male or female — or alien.”
He sounds rightly pleased to have triumphed over labels of his own, as a “musicals man”. In 1989, barely in his twenties, he ended up opposite Elaine Paige in a previous revival of Anything Goes, having been spotted at an open casting call in Glasgow, his home town. Since then, he’s done Sondheim on Broadway and in Washington DC, and Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard on both sides of the pond.
“TV people need to take the risk — musicals have some of the best actors and actresses, goddammit, they really do. When I hear people say ‘Do you want to do real acting?’, I want to punch them.”
But he sounds at ease doing small-screen work.
“I get driven to work, sit in make-up and get to go and fight aliens, fly a spaceship and shoot a couple of guns. I mean, what more can I ask for?”
Episodes one and two of Torchwood will be on BBC3 on Sunday, October 22, repeated on BBC2 on Wednesday, October 25