Russell T. Davies did the seemingly impossible when he brought the long running, and long ago cancelled, BBC show Doctor Who back from the dead. Not only did he manage to resurrect the show, but change the format and update it successfully for the 21st Century. While I truly enjoy the new series, I've always thought that it succeeded in spite of Davies rather than because of him. While he doubtlessly has a great vision for the show, the scripts that he penned were always the weakest and the most juvenile of any given season (farting aliens anyone?) Another piece of evidence for my pet theory is the spin-off show that Davies created from Doctor Who, Torchwood. The first season has now been released on Blu-ray and while the shows look nice, without the decades of history that Doctor Who has to help guide it, this new series stumbles around a bit and has a bit of trouble finding its voice.
When PC Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is taken off a murder investigation at the order of the mysterious organization Torchwood, she starts snooping around. She follows them, hoping to discover their headquarters, but the group inexplicably vanishes in the middle of a large open area. Cooper doesn't give up that easily however. She persists and because they happen to order pizza from a nearby delivery place under their secret organization's name (duh, what idiots) she's able to discover where they are located and infiltrate their base.
What she discovers is an organization that is "outside the government, beyond the police." They're charged with finding alien technology and exploring its uses along with handling any extraterrestrial baddies who might happen to show up. The group consists of computer specialist Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), medical officer Dr. Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), and mechanical genius Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) and their servant Ianto Jones(Gareth David-Lloyd). They are lead by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a mysterious man who can not die. He was last seen at the end of the first season of Doctor Who trapped in the very far future. Just how he got to 21st Century Earth and why he's immortal are mysteries.
After the first episode where Gwen helps the group track down a serial killer who is using alien technology, she joins the group. What a beat cop can contribute to a top-secret hyper-scientific cabal like Torchwood isn't exactly clear, but they think she'll come in handy so she joins up.
Gwen has bitten off a little more than she can chew however. Instead of chasing muggers and common thieves, she finds herself confronting a Cyberman, befriending a girl who became lost in time, and nearly being possessed by an alien that wants to constantly have sex. But if Torchwood doesn't face these menaces, who will?
This isn't a show that's trying to recreate the atmosphere of Doctor Who, which is a good thing. It's trying to be its own show but it's clear from this first season of 13 episodes that the creators aren't quite sure what to do with it. The show stumbles around a lot, and while some of the episodes are excellent, there are others that just fall flat.
One of the main problems is that the scripts are very loose and filled with holes and improbabilities. This is really damaging to the show and it's hard not to scratch your head in wonder at some of the bone-headed things that are done. In the first episode a Torchwood member breaks the rules that results in several deaths. For the rest of the season other members disobey orders and break the rules and not only are they kept on, but they aren't even punished. In one story it is discovered that Ianto has somehow hidden a Cyberman on the base along with a conversion table. After that episode, they go on trusting him as if nothing happened. In the rest of the series Captain Jack is shown killing people for less, but he lets Ianto off without as much as a slapped wrist.
In the extras Russell T. Davies proclaims several times that he wanted to make this a show for adults, and he did. It is an adult program, but it's not grown up or mature. The show pushes the boundaries but for no other reason than to see what they can get away with. Every single member of Torchwood has an on-screen kiss with a member of the same sex, and they drop the f-bomb without blinking. There's nothing wrong with that if it enhances the show or advances the plot. In Torchwood the sexuality rarely adds to the program however and often distracts from the main story. Is it really believable that a British military officer would kiss another man in front of his own men? Oh yeah, and this takes place in 1941! Today it would be improbable, back in WWII the officer would be up on charges and his men would refuse to follow him. It's stupid, but it did fulfil that episodes homo/bi-sexuality quota.
At its worst, the show is appallingly idiotic due to sloppy writing. There's one episode where a villain creates an insanely complex plan that would have made Lex Luthor laugh at how preposterous it was. (The plan starts out with the villain assuming that Torchwood can revive the dead... it gets worse from there.) Another episode relies on someone accidently taking three pictures of people's shoes with a cell phone. Oh yeah, that happens all the time.
It would be easy to write this show off as crap if it wasn't for some of the good episodes that sprinkle themselves through the season. These are often the programs that focus on personalities of the Torchwood members rather than on fighting an alien baddie. The episode "Random Shoes" is has a man who's been interested in aliens his whole life waking up in the middle of the road, dead. He sees his body and accompanies Gwen as she tries to discover how he came to die. "Captain Jack Harkness", though silly in places, has Captain Jack and Toshiko transported back to 1941 during the Blitz and meet a man that they know is going to die the next day. A touching story that was really very good despite its flaws.
One of the aspects that I enjoyed the most is that there are some nice touches that link the show firmly to the Doctor Who universe. Some of them are major, like the appearance of a Cyberman in one episode, but the more subtle touches, a "Vote Saxon" poster on a city wall for example, are a lot more fun. These little inside jokes for the hardcore Who fans give the show a sense of fun that it generally lacks.
The Blu-ray Disc:
All 13 episodes that comprise the first season come on six Blu-ray discs. These arrive in a nice book with one disc on each page. The book is housed in an illustrated slipcase.
The show comes with a DTS-HD 5.1 mix that is very good. The surrounds are used to good effect throughout the show, not just during the action scenes. When they're in "the hub" the sound of falling water can be heard from the rears, and in one episode people are leaving a room when music starts behind them. Viewers can hear the music from the back of the room just as they turn around. It's a simple effect but it works wonderfully. The infrequent battle scenes have a good amount of bass and while it won't give your subwoofer a work out like the latest Hollywood action flick, the show has a good lower end. The dialog is clear and clean and even though many people talk with British accents, it's never hard to understand what is being said.
The 1.78:1 VC-1 image is only encoded at 1080i, but the picture still looks good. While it has more detail and finer lines than the DVD version of the series, there are still a couple of areas where the show (which was recorded in HD) falls a bit. The aerial shots of Cardiff at night are unusually soft with the lights being very diffuse. The daytime images don't have this problem so it may have been intentional though I can't imagine why. There is some digital noise in dark areas, but this is minor, and banding was a problem in a few places, most notably when traveling past the sun in the episode "Random Shoes." The whites are also occasionally too bright, and while they never bloom, they do obscure some fine detail.
Aside from those defects the image was clean and the level of detail was very good. The skin tones were accurate and the colors were nice and solid. While this isn't a reference level set, it still looks fine.
There's a great deal of bonus material contained in this set, all of it ported from the SD version. First off are commentaries on every episode with various members of the cast and crew. Since I wanted to get this review up I didn't take the time to listen to every one, but the ones that I spot checked seem fine with production details and behind-the-scenes anecdotes being told. The commentators generally seemed to be having a good time.
The video bonus material is, alas, presented in standard definition. What they lack in resolution they make up in quantity however. Each episode is accompanied by an episode of "Torchwood: Declassified" a behind the scenes BBC program that focuses on each episode. There are also deleted scenes to several episodes, "Torchwood: Out of This World", a series of behind the scenes featurettes that looks at the special effects for most episodes, and each is also has at least one additional featurette that examines various aspects of the show from the SUV that the Torchwood team travels in to the sex in the series. There's quite a bit of repetition between all of these, but it is a very complete look at the making of the series and should please any fan of the show.
In this first season the writers spend a lot of time trying to get used to the characters and find a direction for the show. For every episode that misses the mark however, there's another one that works well. The characters are developed well over these 13 episodes and the show generally became better in the second half of the season. While it's not perfect, it is a good show that's worth watching and so comes recommended.
Note: The images in this review do not come from the Blu-ray discs and are not representitive of the picture quality of this set.