Background: One of the most popular television shows to ever come out of England over the years (after Benny Hill and a few comedies in my opinion) has been the ongoing adventures of a character named Doctor Who. He is a time lord capable of moving through the vast dimensions of space and time by means of his almost magical machine, the Tardis, and has been portrayed by a variety of actors since the 1960's when the show began. I was most familiar with the Tom Baker version of the show but several years ago, an updated version of the infamous doctor started the cycle once more, this time using a modern approach that was decidedly darker than the versions I remember from years ago. I admit that I have the boxed sets on my wish lists at various stores but having only watched a handful of episodes, I can say that aside from the nomenclature and British mindset, little remains of the character that I knew so long ago, but like other updates (notably Battlestar Galactica) of the modern era, it fascinates me enough that I want to watch from the beginning, not jump in midway through. As a result, my current knowledge of the time lord is minimal but when the show revived this time, it introduced a character that was significantly different from most found on television, that of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a mysterious man with a past (and future) well worth spending some time getting to know, the primary manner of doing so via Torchwood, this look at the first season on Blu-ray being the absolute best way to check it out.
Series: Torchwood Season One begins easily enough with a rash of murders in Cardiff that draws significant attention in the press. The deaths are gruesome and look as though done by packs of wild animals, getting constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) particularly interested in catching the ones responsible for the attacks. Needless to say, the headstrong lady is not happy when a secretive group called Torchwood takes over the investigation, dismissing the police out of hand as nuisances (including Gwen) rather than partners in solving the crimes, resulting in Gwen taking it upon herself to find out what is really going on. Within a short span of time, Gwen sees strange people in costumes, people brought back from the dead, senior detectives and the rest of the police force defering to the members of Torchwood, and no one can answer her questions, or at least no one is willing to do so, the gal ending up watching the watchmen to the point where she tricks her way into their local laboratory/secret enclave. Her guise did not fool the team in the slightest but she caught the eye of Jack, a man unapologetically sexual to the point where he'll literally try to nail anything that moves (following his heart rather than societal conventions), who invites her to join the team.
The other members of the team seem divided on the Captain's reasoning for the invitation, his second, Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) taking a fancy to her himself, computer expert Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori) seeing their all too clear motivations up front, with stoic Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) going along with it, and empathic Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) seeming to hide something she "knows" about the Welch cop. In any case, she is not truly brought up to speed except to learn that all sorts of space alien incursions take place in the city due to a rift in the space/time continuum and Torchwood is the secret group that handles such matters, not quite governmentally based nor a truly private operation; the particulars never covered in depth during the first season. For the newcomer to the show, Gwen is clearly the focal point of the show with more dialogue and screen time than any of the rest put together, her fit into the group markedly strange due to her lack of advanced skills or abilities as each of her peers seem to possess. They are put forth as extremely intelligent without a meaningful life outside of Torchwood so why is a Jane average cop offered such a lucrative role comes to both her mind as well as the viewer. The answer to the question comes fairly quickly of course, it is an hour long so after all, in that Gwen is still attached to the people in most ways, her allegiance to Torchwood the least of her worries as she assists them in a liaison type of position, her fiancé helping to root her in a private life the others wish they could afford.
See, Jack is ageless to the rest of them, his back story slowly filled in as being from the future but somehow cast into the past, his ability to die questionable at best. Over enough lifetimes of seeing people pass away, killed off by strange phenomena, and knowing the bigger picture of what "goes wrong" when the human race enters the 21st Century ("when it all changes"), Jack is distant in most ways, longs for a lost love (a hand of which is kept alive in a glass jar), and has just about seen it all to the point where he literally stopped caring about people as individuals, taking on the darker aspects of his enemies to defeat them on their own terms. This makes him something of an asshole to all of the people around him, their allegiance to him largely the result of knowing he "knows" the future (and wanting to be on the winning side).
The other cast members are damaged goods too, filling the voids in their empty lives with a host of one night stands, bitter rivalries, and even harboring dangerous foes in one case (Cyberwoman). Thus Gwen becomes their only means of salvation from their own lost humanity, her realization of their brilliance coming much faster than her understanding of the costs involved to get to that point. Unlike the majority of shows that offer the viewer a straightforward cast of who is good and who is evil, the lines are blurred in Torchwood, blurred to the point where Gwen questions if she stays on as much to see where they fall on the balance of things or if to mitigate the negative consequences they have on the area. So many questions remained after seeing the first season, partially due to the plot holes casually tossed into the mix and partially due to the desire to keep the viewer guessing about many aspects of the premise, that I admit to having to rely heavily on the audio commentaries and episode specific extras that were so abundant in the set (every episode was covered with a wealth of material, some of it answering questions, some of it resulting in a lot more questions) to understand where they were coming from.
The limitations of the established rules were casually discarded by the team too, Owen pilfering alien technology from the facility to alternatively get laid (using a pheromone spray) or trap aliens on the run (much to Jack's dismay), Ianto keeping his extremely dangerous girlfriend in the basement, Toshiko using an alien pendant that allows her to hear the thoughts of others (causing endless havoc with the team), and Suzie finding out that Gwen is her replacement quite early in the show. The dynamic revolves around each week having a freak of the week type of issue to deal with in most cases too, each incursion from the rift resulting in chaos that must be covered up from the populace and authorities to prevent panic as the team retrieves alien artifacts and tech that tends to fall into the wrong hands, even aliens themselves used by corrupt individuals such as in the Fight Club inspired Countryside. The incursions included things such as seemingly mindless creatures called Weevils spreading into the area, a sex starved alien that inhabits the body of a local spinster as it gets the best rush of all, sexual energy, or another foe caught in time and serving an extremely dangerous foe that nearly causes the end of all life on Earth.
In keeping with the quirky way television from England is allowed to do a lot of things that are not allowed here, swear words are present, openly sexual situations far surpassing a nipple slip are displayed, and the characters are given a far wider array of responses than would be viewed acceptable by the corporate suits that act as censors in the USA (not wanting to offend sponsors). Some that casually watch the show might get the impression that Jack is merely a gay guy or Gwen is a cheating hussy, or Owen is a careless twit seeking to bust a nut without any ties yet Jack is just as likely to chase skirts (as shown in Small Worlds or They Keep Killing Suzie) as men (Captain Jack Harkness in particular) and Owen's desperation for love in Out of Time showing a whole new side of him just as his newfound unwillingness to follow blindly in Captain Jack Harkness/End of Time makes for some interesting projections into the future.
So, with inconsistent writing and quirky characters that might be better suited for late night cable television, what did a guy like me think of the show, a guy without the requisite knowledge of Jack from his stint in Dr. Who? Frankly, for whatever faults it had, I really liked the show and while I'm not a purist that demands everything be explained or that a show provides airtight writing to the point where every last fanboy is happy, the rough edges made me want to watch this one time and again. The reports that the creator, Russell Davies, was merely furthering his personal agenda with the sexuality displayed in the series seem to ignore the fact that sex is a prominent fact of life that permeates the lives of those of us that actually have lives (unlike the masses of fanboys that never get laid at all), most shows relying on lame innuendos or off screen trysts in defiance of the reality most of us are acquainted with. The willingness to try something offbeat life Random Shoes that had a one shot character get to "join" the team to solve his own murder and save the day was also something I'd like to see more of, but ultimately, you need not have any familiarity with Dr. Who to appreciate this one, my rating admittedly higher than most with a Highly Recommended awarded for all it did provide in terms of entertainment value, the loose ends and untidy issues certainly weighing heavily on my mind but the substantial body of extras pushed me over the edge, as did the upgrade on Blu-ray (my review taking longer since I had to borrow a copy of the SD version to compare it to). If you do not like openly sexual characters in your science fiction or demand that they follow traditional roles, pass this one up but do so knowing that with a bit of tweaking, this could be one of the best shows on television in terms of untapped potential. Oh, and if you want another take on the show, one by a prominent expert in pop culture and British television, check out the look at the set by John Sinnott as it led me to wanting my copy despite his well founded criticisms.
Picture: Torchwood Season One: Blu-ray was presented in the original 1.78:1 widescreen color, using the VC-1 codec under a 1080i resolution as shot by various directors. The video bitrate varied substantially but there was no tie to the numbers and look of the show, the darker footage (at night or in dark places) looking grainier than expected for the high definition format or the minimal edge enhancement observed in between some of the macroblocking. The computer generated effects (CGI) were low end to be sure, especially in the series finale End of Days, but I've never expected much from shows coming over from England in terms of effects (look at the mid 70's Dr. Who to see what I mean in extreme) so they weren't deal killers. The visual aspects of the show in high definition were an upgrade though and if you get a chance to compare the versions, the increased details provide more life to the material here, helping hook me more readily than the SD or regular broadcast on cable ever had a chance of doing. The nitpickers might fuss about how the footage appears to be shot in a variety of media too, some in 1080p, other material in 720p, and still other material possibly on film stock (or at least processed to look that way) but the approach the show seems to take is that particular kinds of shots are done on a single format, the visual issues appearing internally consistent with each other (night shots being shot with one set of cameras, action shots relying on a different team) so while they dissect the show ad infinitum, I'll watch the forest instead of the trees to get the bigger picture.
Sound: Perhaps the nicest upgrade I observed from the set was the use of DTS-HD 5.1 since the cable version was decidedly tame by comparison. While not the most aggressive use of soundstage I've heard to date from a television show, there was no doubt that the rear speakers and subwoofer were actively considered by the sound engineering staff, the ambient sounds and music blended together to provide some spooky effects at times even if the series relied somewhat too heavily on the main theme of the show instead of a wider variety of aural pieces (each main character should have had their own piece like the show Heroes has done, allowing for some additional mystique to their thoughts or dominance in a scene rather than defer so much to Jack, my belief that Gwen was more the "heart" of the show and at least as important despite her plain appearance. In terms of what sounded the best though, it was definitely a tossup between the fight scenes and the quietest of moments, each managing to invoke the appropriate mood needed to sell the often outlandish premises of the situations the team would get themselves into. The bass could have been louder and tighter but it was far from distorted as some shows appear to be these days.
Extras: Every episode had an audio commentary staffed by the creative team and/or actors, almost all of whom seemed to know what they were talking about and serving as experts on their characters as well as the iterations the scripts went through, the declassified material showing how the material was worked out ahead of time rather than on the sets, allowing the writers some chance to beef up clear mistakes or the cast to suggest some ideas that might fit into the show better. There were also some deleted scenes that did not generally prove worthy of inclusion in the episodes but were fun to check out, some outtakes that amounted to varied ways some material was shot, not all of it polished up for the set, shown in lame standard definition too so the hit the picture quality took was a double dose. While not appearing on each episode, there were specials relating to the special effects on almost half of them, other features shorter in length but serving up breakdowns of the scenes, the equipment used, the characters as seen by the cast, and the situations presented for them to address. Some humor was presented in terms of the cast interacting too, the majority of features providing material that may well have come straight from the commentaries (or perhaps the commentaries were at least partially derived from them almost word for word in some cases like the Sex in the series feature versus the Day One commentary). In any case, the diary, the extra footage, and the creator/cast participation was such that it definitely elevated the extras bar for me substantially.
Final Thoughts: Torchwood Season One in Blu-ray was nothing at all like I was led to believe by the critics that wrote about the show when it aired originally and I wish I had discarded their opinions and just watched the show but that made this boxed set an added treat when it came in a week ago. It won't be for everyone and the creator made it clear that he was less interested in the usual clean lines provided by shows on television in favor of trying something new, the results somewhat mixed but intriguing all the same. There are very few series that I fall for after a single season, exceptions including the aforementioned Heroes or recently reviewed Reaper but Torchwood showed that it had so much going for it that I truly wanted to know more about Jack, Gwen, Toshiko, and even Owen, the cleaner high definition version spoiling it for me to an extent but my wish list now including Season Two in Blu-ray as the science fiction blended well with the cop show dramas better than the more fantastical Dr. Who itself, a different kind of show for the modern age so give it a look but watch it in order lest you scratch your head as much as I did the first time.