While I’ll try to be mostly obtuse, the below probably contains spoilers.
Torchwood has always been a bit of a let down for me. A spin-off from Doctor Who, the show gave former supporting character Captain Jack Harkness a new team to lead, a base in Cardiff, and the task of protecting the Earth from aliens and technologies that fall through a rift in the space-time continuum there. It was pitched as a grown-up show, telling stories too dark and mature for Doctor Who, sci-fi for grown-ups, when the kids were in bed.
In the first series, it attempted to do this through the medium of largely substandard stories, peppered with sex and swearing. It had some good points, including a fine cast, excellent production values, and one or two good episodes. It was for the most part a bit like Men In Black, but not funny at all.
In the second series, it found a bit of consistency, was often pretty good, but for me only came close to being really excellent in the season closer, where it took itself seriously, and managed to kill off two of the regulars in the process.
I had no real expectations of season three, which ran last week in a new format, showing one story over five nights, an hour at a time. I watched the first episode on Monday, and thought it was pretty good, maybe the best hour of Torchwood I’d seen. I watched the second on Tuesday, and thought it might be dipping a little, unable to meet the potential of the opening. I didn’t bother with the rest, as they were being recorded for me, and forgot about them until this morning.
I put on the third episode, and was hooked through the nose. It was brilliant. I watched the fourth episode, and wondered whether it was the best hour of television I’ve seen this year. I watched the last, and was sure if it. It was everything that first series had promised and failed to live up to. Mature, disturbing, distressing, and very powerful indeed. The regulars gave fine performances, the newcomers (particularly Peter Capaldi as the Permanent Secretary to the Home Office) excelled, and the writing was spot on. The decision to really play on the conspiracy at the heart of government was inspired, giving the story real depth and complexity. The horror was truly effective, both in theory and practise (images of the army kicking in doors and stealing children were particulary good), the alien nasty was clevery obscure and unknowable, and all the more disturbing for that. I cried at the death of one character, then again when Peter Capaldi’s character sought a very personal final solution to protect his family.
And the ending, Jack’s brutal and horrific sacrifice of his own grandson to save all the other children on the planet? Very brave storytelling. Heroes aren’t supposed to choose to do horrific things, and I bet this has the forums howling. There were storytelling options that could have taken this decision away from him, kept him the same man as at the start of the week, but they would have been cheating. This story, from day one, was about impossible choices, and how governments and individuals deal with them. Jack condemned the government for their decision to save the earth by sacrificing a proportion of the children. At the end, the writers could have made him refuse to kill his grandson, made the army take him down and do it for him (that boy had to die by that point – the only solution), but that would have been unfair. That he understood, and did the unthinkable, making himself a true monster for the greater good, was genuinely horrific to watch, and all the more profound for that.
All of which made for bleak and stunning television, and blew me away the more for my quite low expectations.
As for the future, there’s no sign of a fourth series being announced, and to be honest, I’m not sure how anything that follows could be anything but disappointing after the last week. The team is down to two members, neither of whom seem particularly available for further adventuring, and the closing minutes felt like an ending to the whole series. If it turns out that this is the case, it’s a stunning way to go. I’ll be picking up the DVD, and enjoying (if that’s the right word for something this bleak and harrowing) the whole thing again. I gather the five day run is being shown on BBC America in the next week or so. Keep an eye out for it, and let me know what you think.