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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

32 Comments

  1. SpaceSquid
    August 28, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    I agree with a lot of this post, though I see the problems as larger and its saving graces as offering less in the way of redemption, but:

    . Killing Rhys for a cheap stunt would have been an easy way to make End of Days appear edgier, but it also would have removed the engine for most of the first season’s best scenes, which concerned Gwen’s work-life balance.

    They did kill Rhys for a cheap stunt. They just handwaved it away at the end of the episode, so that they could have their cheap stunt without having to work through the consequences of it. Which, as I've skirted around before, was always this first season's problem. It wanted to have everyone repeatedly at each other's throats so as to be Dark and Gritty and Realistic, but it rarely wanted to actually explore the fall-out from that (see also: stopwatch, surprising use of).

    I'm entirely on board with the idea that killing Rhys would have left the show worse off (the scene where Gwen gives him Retcon being ironically the most the season ever did to explore the long-term effects of the characters' actions), but that doesn't make it a sensible choice to kill and then resurrect him.

    But then I hate plots where I watch them without knowing whether everything is going to be magically waved away at the end, and I've never been able to get onboard with the argument that says as long as emotional consequences remain, that should suffice. Particularly on a show like Torchwood where the emotional consequences will likely be ignored or even contradicted, you're left with too little to hang on to. There's a reason Kenny's deaths in South Park are a running joke and not accompanied by sad music every time.

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  2. Spacewarp
    August 28, 2013 @ 1:03 am

    I'd love to see a detailed breakdown of exactly who watched this first season of Torchwood, and what the crossover is with people who watch Doctor Who as well. Although Torchwood does fall back on it's relationship with Doctor Who when the going gets tough, it does still take pains to keep references to the strictly necessary and therefore court it's own audience…which seems to me to be made up of roughly the following groups:

    Doctor Who fans who think it's inferior to Doctor Who
    Doctor Who fans who think it's better than Doctor Who
    People who don't watch Doctor Who

    I have no interest in the first two (either they love it or they hate it, yawn), but I'd love to know what the third group think of it (and what percentage of the audience they were). It's almost impossible to get a non-DW fan assessment of Torchwood, as generally the only places you'll see it discussed are on Doctor Who forums, by Doctor Who fans who are incapable of doing anything other than plonking it down opposite the parent programme and playing "spot the difference". Even on a non-Who site such as DenofGeek the comments are exclusively from Who fans holding up a mirror to Who. Torchwood deserves to be compared to The Avengers, Ultraviolet, X-Files, Spooks, even The Tomorrow People or Doomwatch, but chained as it is to Doctor Who this is something we'll never see.

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  3. David Thiel
    August 28, 2013 @ 4:23 am

    Is there a space for "Doctor Who fans who only watched it because it was sorta connected to Doctor Who?"

    For me, it wasn't about whether it was better/worse than "Who." Sure, my familiarity with the parent series colored my reactions to the changes in Jack's character and the goddamned Cyberwoman in platform heels. But I didn't need to compare it to "Who" to realize that it wasn't very good.

    It was a show about unlikable people skulking in a hole in the ground, in which the apparent audience identification character committed the unpardonable sin of having an affair with the frog-faced misogynist. It was an "adult" show that was juvenile in its use of sex.

    But yeah, it would be interesting to learn what non-"we" thought about the show, assuming that any of them watched it.

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  4. peeeeeeet
    August 28, 2013 @ 4:36 am

    Indeed, and this was a particular problem with Heroes, which was a bugger for not letting any of its supposedly devastating twists stick for very long. It can work, though; Charmed used to do it a lot, but it was always presented as "this is the puzzle of the week – how are they going to bring back the status quo?" Which had the bonus that the few times it did stick – Andy's death, the "Astral Monkey" episode or the beginning of season four – were some of the most powerful and memorable.

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  5. Froborr
    August 28, 2013 @ 4:56 am

    I find it difficult to imagine that very many non-Who fans watched this. Given the sheer size of Who's viewership, the number of people in Britain who didn't watch Who was pretty small, and probably mostly made up of people who don't watch television, people who don't like science fiction, people who don't like Doctor Who, and grumpy classic series fans who refuse to watch Davies' version. None of those groups seem likely to even start watching Torchwood, let alone enjoy it enough to keep watching. MAYBE the five people who think Saward had it right, seeing as Torchwood is basically the Saward era with sex instead of violence, but that's not going to be a significant part of Torchwood's audience.

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  6. Froborr
    August 28, 2013 @ 5:02 am

    I watched this season of Torchwood while Season 3 of Doctor Who was airing. I have not watched any of it since.

    This is the only episode of which I remember the premise, general story, and resolution, which I suppose makes it the most memorable episode of the season? I don't think that's actually a good thing, though I do remember wondering if Abaddon killed Jack enough times repeatedly, would he die for good? My brain ran into this weird Fullmetal Alchemist-inspired space where Rose had actually meant to resurrect everyone who died in the Dalek attack, but instead accidentally resurrected them all in Jack, and he got one resurrection for each of them.

    This inevitably led to comparisons of Jack to Hohenheim, which I can't remember how they went then, but if I did it now Jack would come off very much the poorer.

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  7. Anton B
    August 28, 2013 @ 5:09 am

    I remember my reaction being 'THIS is the 'adult' spinoff?' SJA seemed much more comfortable within its 'childrens TV' remit to deal with some quite 'grown-up' issues (adoption, bullying, being 'differently abled, racism, etc); just like its parent show. Torchwood on the other hand was like a bad DC Vertigo imprint comic – interpreting 'adult' as meaning clche Sci-Fi plot with naughty words, semi-nudity and bad sex.

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  8. peeeeeeet
    August 28, 2013 @ 5:23 am

    the number of people in Britain who didn't watch Who was pretty small

    Eh? 85-90% of the country don't watch any given episode of Doctor Who!

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  9. Theonlyspiral
    August 28, 2013 @ 5:57 am

    This. A thousand times this.

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  10. Iain Coleman
    August 28, 2013 @ 6:01 am

    Yes, but something like 50% of the country will watch at least one episode per series, if I recall correctly.

    Which still leaves a fair few people, but as Froborr says it's hard to imagine why those people would avoid Who but latch on to Torchwood.

    In the US I gather it was a bit different, with a fair number of Torchwood fans either never watching Doctor Who, or coming to Who via Torchwood.

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  11. Theonlyspiral
    August 28, 2013 @ 6:01 am

    You might be able to forgive Gwen but I sure can't. I'll be honest: The first time she slips Rhys retcon, I was upset but willing to give a pass. Here, where she is obviously intending to come back and do it again is just a bridge too far. After this point I never quite bought in to her as a moral center. She's as bad as Owen.

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  12. Spacewarp
    August 28, 2013 @ 6:23 am

    "Is there a space for "Doctor Who fans who only watched it because it was sorta connected to Doctor Who?"

    Well yes, the first two groups. Regardless of your feelings about the show, you're going to have an opinion (no matter how slight) of which show is better.

    As to the size of Who's viewership, well the UK's population in 2006 was about 60 Million, and Who was generally watched by 5-8 Million viewers…which as peeeeeeet points out is only about 10%. Season 1 of Torchwood pulled in between 1 and 2.5 Millions, which means between 1.7 and 4% of the UK watched it.

    So…no more than 10% of Doctor Who viewers watched Torchwood as well (of if you like 90% of Doctor Who viewers didn't watch Torchwood).

    However if you concentrate on online forums and blogs, it's fairly rare to find Who fans who don't also watch Torchwood, judging by comments.

    So the 80% of Who viewers who don't watch Torchwood are probably either children, adults who watch with children, or people who don't consider themselves the type of "fans" who post on forums.

    BARB probably know which viewers watch Who but don't watch TW, but unless someone has asked them to provide that information, and it's been published somewhere, then I guess we'll never know.

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  13. peeeeeeet
    August 28, 2013 @ 6:53 am

    Yes, but something like 50% of the country will watch at least one episode per series, if I recall correctly.

    I doubt it's that high – unless I'm doing my maths wrong that would require at best a complete turnover of around two million – i.e. each episode is watched by two million people who won't watch a single other one that year. That would actually harm Froborr's point further since I doubt those people would describe themselves as "people who watch Doctor Who". If we assume a more mixed turnover, i.e. some of them watch two episodes a year, some watch three, that would bring the regular audience down even further (but at this point my ability to do the sums leaves me).

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  14. BerserkRL
    August 28, 2013 @ 7:21 am

    Abaddon, another name for the devil, is said to be “chained in rock” and “cast out before time,” which isn’t so much copying The Satan Pit as explicitly referencing it.

    Plus Abaddon is called "Son of the Beast"; so not so much a knock-off as a chip off.

    Reply

  15. BerserkRL
    August 28, 2013 @ 7:27 am

    And the show has its own pterodactyl

    They call it a pterodactyl, but what they show is clearly a pteranodon. But "Wedding of River Song" does the same thing.

    Reply

  16. BerserkRL
    August 28, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    it would be interesting to learn what non-"we" thought about the show, assuming that any of them watched it

    I have several friends who only watch Torchwood (and who like it a lot) and don't watch Doctor Who (on the grounds that DW is for kids).

    Reply

  17. Lewis Christian
    August 28, 2013 @ 9:25 am

    What really bothers me is the fact Jack is totally different when he swaps shows, and the end of "End of Days" highlights Jack's Plot Convenience… namely when he comes back to life. If it's more dramatic to have him not come back to life for ages, then it happens. Other times it's within seconds. Other times it's really painful and loud. Other times it's totally silent (like when he comes back to life after dying with Ianto in Series 3 – convenient, to fit the scene). Hmm.

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  18. Spacewarp
    August 28, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    He does seem to know when to come back loudly and when to keep it quiet, even though he's dead at the time. Like on the Crucible when he's just been exterminated and he revives without making a sound, so the Daleks don't exterminate him again, allowing him to slide out of the waste disposal unseen. Which makes one wonder why Daleks have a waste disposal unit anyway, since they don't have much use for organic matter. It's not like they have dirty dishes or laundry. Also why can the waste disposal be opened from the inside? He'd look a right arse if he couldn't get out and had to just sit inside there burning up over and over again.

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  19. BerserkRL
    August 28, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

    Phil, do you plan to cover The Light at the End?

    Reply

  20. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 28, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

    In one book or another.

    Reply

  21. Froborr
    August 28, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    Have a thousand more on me.

    Reply

  22. Bennett
    August 28, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    The one aspect of Torchwood that never fails to get my hackles up is when it is described as "Doctor Who for adults" (and in particular the way Davies pushed this description by adding a snide "I'm not allowed to call it" at the front).

    The way I always put it is:
    Doctor Who is Doctor Who for adults.
    Torchwood is Doctor Who for teenagers.

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  23. NimiusTakkun
    August 28, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    Torchwood-first fan here! I started out with Torchwood, never having heard of Doctor Who, or even properly seen a sci-fi-series. But then, of course, I started watching Doctor Who… well, actually only because it was connected to Torchwood. I guess in a way I still qualify as "people who watch Doctor Who", since I do now, but I have been thinking repeatedly during the Torchwood posts how different things seemed to me, having no Doctor Who to compare it to.

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  24. SpaceSquid
    August 29, 2013 @ 1:26 am

    This always bothered me as well. It's not just the head-crest that gives it away, either. A pterodactyl produces a significantly different K-KLAK to that of a pteranodon.

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  25. SpaceSquid
    August 29, 2013 @ 1:27 am

    Waste disposal units are to Dalek plungers what stress-balls are to human hands.

    Reply

  26. prandeamus
    August 29, 2013 @ 2:24 am

    SpaceSquid wins today's Interweb.

    Reply

  27. Alex Wilcock
    September 4, 2013 @ 7:58 am

    I’ve come to the party after everyone’s gone home as usual, but thought I’d pop in on the assumption that, as you’ve rather summed it up here, you probably won’t do a ‘Not a review blog’ for this. So here are a few comments across that season, looking at my own sort of ‘Not a review blog’ for it. I never got round to full Torchwood reviews of my own, either, but I did write a critical look at the whole first series, which takes a more critical line than yours.

    To be fair, as always you come up with a good few points of redemptive reading that had me nodding, as did comments on this one by, particularly, Spacewarp, David Thiel and Theonlyspiral, and most of all BerserkRL’s terrible gag about Abaddon, which is brilliant.

    I’ll jump in backwards on End of Days, where I think both that you’ve got a fascinating point I’d not thought of and that you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. The good bit first: the two-part analysis of Bilis Manger (an anagram of the Muslim Devil + Manger, from which a pretty rough Beast is bound to slouch towards Cardiff to be born) as a figure of Doctor Who and how he and all he brings intrudes on this show is a great redemptive reading. Like all great redemptive readings, I don’t believe for an instant that it was intentional, but that makes it all the more fascinating.

    I’ll come back to your “Framed this way, most things make sense. We have a Doctor Who plot unfolding on a show full of characters who are simply not equipped to handle it” in a minute.

    I suppose I have to come in on Chris Chibnall here. End of Days is I suppose the best of his Series One scripts, in part because it’s difficult to mess up a mash-up of Roman centurions, stomping beasties and sinister villains, and in retrospect I find it a more successful finale on its own terms than one of Russell’s and a couple of Mr Moffat’s. But it’s all so utterly predictable. Essentially, as the shape of it demands a Buffy-style ‘Big Bad’, the Rift tediously becomes a hellmouth, with a demon coming out and being – who’d have guessed? – easily overcome. And why exactly was it a brainless, lumbering beastie? In the previous year’s Doctor Who, The Beast had no mind because its thoughts had escaped elsewhere. Predictably, Mr Chibnall appears to have seen this, but thought no further than ‘Cool!’ at the way it looks. So that was the first series of Torchwood all over – all the spectacle of Doctor Who but with its brain extracted.

    To be continued…

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  28. Alex Wilcock
    September 4, 2013 @ 8:00 am

    Chris Chibnall’s the easiest thing to focus on for ‘what went wrong’ in the first year, but not out of what you dismiss as just fan hate for him under Countrycide. I’d seen things of his before that I’d liked, so I didn’t come to him with any animus – just as I’d seen Doctor Who, and came to the first series of Torchwood with much enthusiasm. It wasn’t out of ‘fan hate’ that I felt both came up short, and the series shortest when he was writing, but just out of, well, watching it. To be fair, I reckon both have done much better since – in Mr Chibnall’s case, while I wouldn’t overpraise his Who scripts last year, I thought he was noticeably trying much harder and they were no more flawed than the three scripts alongside them from his much more celebrated fellow writers, and I’ve written at length about how Broadchurch is a very strong and unexpectedly deep piece of writing.

    So when I think his scripts are the nadir of the first year, it’s not based on prejudice but simple judgement. You write both that Torchwood’s an anthology series, praising its “varied approach,” and that “Torchwood doesn’t have the confidence in itself to do this sort of story as Torchwood.” Well, the one’s the corollary of the other, and a large part of it’s that in this season it’s not made up its mind what ‘doing something as Torchwood’ actually is yet. Or, rather, that it’s settled into two mutually incompatible generalisations about what the series is. If you separate Series One in two – scripts by Chris Chibnall / scripts by everyone else – you’ll have one series that’s an anthology of sad, elegiac stories of people (human or not) and very human emotions, the other a monster-of-the-week anthology aimed at the horny straight male fourteen-year-old with violence, swearing and cheap sex for which ‘story’ only gets in the way. The only way I can understand the series being in effect two different ones being made for completely different audiences is that most of the writers took to the original pitch given by the show’s creator but that the showrunner had a fundamentally different conception.

    However, my biggest problem with Torchwood is a much more central one even than its lead writer: it’s Captain Jack. Yes, I can see the character development after being killed and abandoned for a century. It’s not implausible. I just don’t like it, and think it throws out the baby with the bathwater. I grit my teeth every time you say he was “camp”; well, no, not unless you just bi-erasingly mean ‘gay’. I remember a lot of people saying way back in 2005 that he was great because he was a confident, shaggable action hero who wasn’t straight and wasn’t camp; if anything, the overdone ‘Dark Knight’ posing once he lost his mojo is what I’d say is camp. And lost him most of his libido, too.

    To be concluded…

    Reply

  29. Alex Wilcock
    September 4, 2013 @ 8:01 am

    Torchwood Series One had exactly the wrong idea about Captain Jack Harkness. He was created almost as a send-up of a Hollywood version of the Doctor – traveller in time and space, but a uniformed secret agent, impossibly handsome and with sex – but though he keeps the uniform and the looks in Torchwood, and is now in charge of his own bunch of blatantly obvious agents, something vital’s missing. People went for Captain Jack because he looked like he was having as much fun as a human could have. It took the Doctor to make him heroic, but even before then he blazed with charm and confidence, and he absolutely loved what he did. And a lot of what he did was to have sex with anything alive, so long as it was gorgeous enough. He was the embodiment of exuberant sexual liberation.

    The Captain Jack we see in Torchwood might not have aged to look at, but he’s at least a hundred years older, lost, abandoned and hopeless, but bizarrely in charge and serious rather than a cheeky charmer, a Buffy-in-Season-Six lead who’s been restored to life only for life to lose all its savour. He may do the same sort of things, but it’s just going through the motions, and even the sex (which he gets much less of than the rest) is because he just wants to feel alive. And that’s how I respond to your line about people not being equipped to handle a Doctor Who sort of world: in Doctor Who, the Doctor inspires people; in Torchwood, a human has been crushed by the responsibility of trying to be like the Doctor. This Captain Jack is suicidal, and even more depressed because, as he’s now indestructible, killing himself doesn’t work. Now, where’s the fun in that?

    One of the reasons I love the three-part Doctor Who 2007 finale is Jack’s “Oh, I’ve missed this!” – so had I.

    The flipside of Jack’s fall is that he provides the series’ themes. There are two that regularly spring out of the episodes, one about something fun that it makes gloomy, the other about something gloomy that it makes intriguing. The first? ‘Sex is bad’. It’s nasty, and shameful, and addictive, and the only reason to do it is to distract yourself from the things in life that are even more depressing. Well, gee; I knew Torchwood had been set up by Queen Victoria, but there’s no need to make it so obvious! The second theme is, thankfully, the best thing about the first series. Though largely abandoned after that until coming back relentlessly in Miracle Day, Torchwood Series One was ‘the life after death show’. The start of that, clearly, was Captain Jack, but episode after episode looks at people or things surviving beyond death, and it tests from every angle whether there’s anything there at all. One of those themes, going back to what I said above, ties in with what you might call the ‘Chibnall’ sort of theme, the other with the ‘elegy’ theme (though even two of Mr Chibnall’s scripts played with life after death, if more dumbly). And having been rather too negative, as I do praise several individual episodes in my own overview, I’ll draw to a close by saying that the zenith of the strain of the show I liked in its first year was They Keep Killing Suzie, which was an absolutely terrific piece of television and one of the reasons I kept watching.

    “And the show has its own pterodactyl.”

    Which they killed off, ‘off’, in Cyberwoman, a mess-up so crass they had to retcon it. Which says a lot about a first season which, despite having far more goodwill and BBC support behind it, was a desperately long way behind the ideas or the successes of 1963-4.

    As Sarah Jane said on the same day, “They tend to go in, guns blazing. I just think there’s a better way of doing it.”

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  30. Rodolfo Piskorski
    September 12, 2014 @ 6:44 am

    I started watching Torchwood before DW, because I was moving to Cardiff and was really interested in the city. I know next to nothing about the Doctor. I only started watching DW later, because I didn't understand some things. I think only after Children of Earth.

    In the beginning I thought that Torchwood was better, because DW felt very silly, like it didn't take itself seriously. I made my boyfriend watch with me and he thought both shows kinda sucked but that DW sucked more.

    I think we both changed our opinions with time. I'd say that rationally I can see that DW is better but Torchwood seems much more emotional for me, probably because I watched it first. DW does have the awesome time travel element which simply fascinates me, to the point that I frequently dream about the Doctor, the TARDIS, and companions stranded in timey-wimey paradoxes.

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  31. Rodolfo Piskorski
    September 12, 2014 @ 6:47 am

    Fuck, I mean, I KNEW next to nothing…

    Reply

  32. encyclops
    December 6, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    Alex, there's probably little chance you've subscribed to notifications or will ever see this, but what you say about Captain Jack and the first season's sex-negativity and dourness — so totally spot on about what's missing. I'm reading this because I've only just now finished season one, so so late to the party, and actually enjoyed most of it a lot more than I expected to. I'll definitely keep watching at least till the end of Children of Earth, but I couldn't agree more that what it's chiefly lacking is Captain Jack's sense of humor and joie de vivre.

    Reply

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