It’s March 5th, 2008. Duffy is at number one with “Mercy.” H Two O, OneRepublic, Basshunter, and David Jordan also chart, along with several more… notable artists. In news, former Thai Prime Minister and owner of Manchester City Thaskin Shinawatra returns to Thailand to face corruption charges. Prince Harry returns from a deployment in Afghanistan due to his location being leaked by the press. The Presidential Primaries rumble on in the US, with Hillary Clinton winning the Rhode Island, Ohio, and Texas primaries, but Obama winning Vermont and the Texas caucuses, which results in him getting more delegates overall out of that state. John McCain, meanwhile, officially secures the Republican nomination.
While on television, it’s the pleasantly idiosyncratic Something Borrowed. It’s possible, looking at the dramatic improvement Torchwood undergoes in its last two seasons (yes, really), to suggest that Torchwood is simply not very good at done-in-one episodes, and that its natural format is the miniseries. Certainly it’s true, as we’ll get around to seeing, that the series undergoes a profound transformation and improvement with its third season. And it’s true that the first and second seasons are pocked with mediocre and occasionally dreadful episodes. But this is not in and of itself a refutation of its format.
I bring all of this up because Something Borrowed is the last time Torchwood attempts a fairly light-hearted episode; indeed, a broadly comedic one. As it happens, it’s also the best episode of the season to date, and a credible contender for the best episode of the season outright. And so it represents a vanishing glimpse of another sort of Torchwood. The problem with the eventual miniseries format is that it is bombastically big. And while this can be terribly effective, it’s easy to forget that in the first two seasons Torchwood was at its best with small stories.
Because this is what appeals so much about Something Borrowed. It is, in the end, just a story about Gwen and Rhys getting married. It’s a human story. Something goes terribly wrong on their wedding day, and Gwen is determined to find a way to make it work because she refuses to let Torchwood interfere with this one. The result is that one of Torchwood’s absolute strongest points – the Gwen/Rhys relationship – is in the foreground. (Notably, this is what made Meat, the most recent more-or-less functional episode of Torchwood, work as well) And so we get the sort of thing Torchwood is good at – ordinary human moments juxtaposed with strange, eccentric spaces.
There’s a line of critique about this episode that declares that Gwen is mad to carry on with her wedding. Which she very plainly is, and yet it’s an entirely human madness. Gwen is hardly the first person to become a bit monomaniacal on her wedding day. (And her initial justification is so perfectly accurate: “do you have any idea how much a wedding costs?” Because yes, that is exactly what it is like.) And more to the point, there’s a clear motivation, particularly in the wake of Rhys finding out about Torchwood. Of course Gwen wants to protect her wedding from Torchwood at all costs. Because for her, disappointing Rhys that way is flat out the worst possible thing that could happen. And so of course she behaves idiotically, to the point of Rhys calling her on a key part of it. But behaving stupidly is, let’s remember, very human.
The basic setup also means that the series gets away from the somewhat ponderous tone it’s taken this season. Much of what has rendered this season so unsatisfying is Torchwood’s single-minded obsession with being a serious show. Whatever it’s covered, the show has been terribly invested in the idea that it’s doing Serious Drama and thus that it had Important Things to say. This has at times jarred awkwardly with the fact that in things like the undead Owen arc or Sleeper it’s manifestly had nothing even remotely interesting to say, and indeed, at times, nothing boring to say either.
Another way of putting this is that it has become a show of pure ideas. Episode after episode is about broad philosophical concepts, with the characters amounting to little more than stock roles designed to move the plot along. Whereas Something Borrowed manages to properly be about the Torchwood cast as characters. Jack, Rhys, Gwen, Tosh, Ianto, and Owen all get moments that are uniquely theirs, and that come from more than just their stock roles in the story. Some are serious – Tosh’s scene delivering the new dress to Gwen, for instance. Others are markedly less so – there is perhaps no sight gag more perfect than seeing Ianto in the background of the reception DJing because the regular DJ has been eaten alive. But the real point is that this is a story about people, not about “the nature of humanity” or “the cruelty of war” or “death” or whatever.
It’s also properly funny. The entire central image – Gwen acquiring an alien pregnancy on her wedding day – is just solid, entertaining comedy. The slow reveal of Gwen’s pregnancy is glorious. The light farce about keeping her away from her in-laws-to-be and of the feuding but impeccably polite mothers is pitch-perfect, and pays off marvelously as Rhys’s mother becomes the alien’s disguise of choice, and Gwen identifies the real one because of her awful perfume. This is an episode that actually feels fun to watch.
As a result it feels like a drink of cool water in the midst of an absolute desert. So why can’t the show always be like this? The cynical, but perhaps entirely accurate answer is that it suffers badly from being the second show. This doesn’t explain why The Sarah Jane Adventures, which is pretty clearly the third show, works, but that discrepancy just requires that we refine the explanation a little. The Sarah Jane Adventures works because it is in effect a two-man writing staff, with Gareth Roberts and Phil Ford doing virtually the entire show by themselves. Whereas Torchwood has a motley of writers and nobody leading the charge. Chris Chibnall is the primary writer, but he’s not in charge of the show’s overall vision. That’s stuck in some slightly nebulous place between Chibnall and Davies.
The result is, well, the second season of Torchwood. Absent any sense of direction or drumbeat, we get something that feels like its own auxiliary series. This is a problem we’ve seen in, for instance, the New Series Adventures line or the Big Finish lines. Because they’re defined by their inability to impact anything, they turn to the safest, most milquetoast sorts of storytelling imaginable. This may sound like an endorsement of “event” storytelling, but it’s not; Something Borrowed is not particularly an event. Sure, Gwen gets married in it, which is ostensibly a change to her status quo, but nothing follows from that. She’s been in a committed relationship with Rhys since the start of the show. Marriage doesn’t change it, and this episode could have been moved around fairly freely in the running order – the only necessity is that it remain somewhere after Meat.
Rather it’s an endorsement of storytelling with a focus on doing something other than fitting adequately into a pre-existing genre. After all, it’s not like the classic series was awash in deep character pieces with consequences that will change everything forever. And next entry we’ll talk about one of the most spectacularly characterization-free stories in Torchwood while conceding that the episode works well. But when the classic series worked it worked because the writers had stories they wanted to tell and were using Doctor Who’s flexibility to do it. Sometimes they’re ideas that could only work within Doctor Who. Other times they’re ideas that Doctor Who turns out to be a suitable vehicle for. Either way, however, they’re ideas in their own right. But that’s not what auxiliary material does; auxiliary material attempts to tell a story that will scratch a Doctor Who itch.
And that’s the crux of the problem with most stories that aren’t Something Borrowed this season; they’re not stories that are being told within Torchwood. They’re stories constructed to satisfy the need for Torchwood stories. Their sole goal is to feel like Torchwood. Something Borrowed is one of a handful of stories that offer some relief from that tendency this season; a story that’s about what Torchwood can do as opposed to that’s about fulfilling the basic obligations of what it’s “supposed” to do. It seems a strange thing to complain about in a season in which we have ghost stories, love stories, intimate character pieces, angry political commentary, comedy, and kitchen sink drama all clanging up against each other, but at the end of the day the problem is that in Torchwood’s second season almost every episode feels exactly the same.
And so it stands as a slightly tragic monument to a show that could have been. Once Torchwood figured out how to be reliably good, it did so by picking a strength and sticking to it. And fair enough; not every show needs to be a flexible genre-hopper. But it’s worth remembering the show we almost had; the one that could jump around and do different things, but use them all to shine a light on our world and what it’s like. It is, in many ways, a harder show to do; lashing together a fixed run story with big world-spanning consequences is, in many ways, an easier task than coming up with thirteen different lenses on our lives and our world. But at the end of the day, the show that can really run for a long time isn’t the one that did Children of Earth followed by the not-quite-as-good Miracle Day; it’s the one that can do Something Borrowed. And nobody ever put in the time to make Torchwood a show that could reliably do that. Davies certainly wasn’t. It’s revealing that in The Writer’s Tale he talks about boldly holding the line and making sure he spends time on all the shows, and yet the one time he flagrantly doesn’t is when he packs it in and gives up on the premiere to Torchwood Season Two because it’s making him miserable. It’s going too far to say that he didn’t care about the show. But equally, it clearly wasn’t where his effort was focused.
And this is, in many ways, the saddest thing about Torchwood. It’s sometimes accused of just being an old pre-Doctor Who concept called Excalibur that Davies dusted off and recycled for a spin-off. But the truth is that the show would have been on stronger footing if it were that – a show that people put real effort into and tried to develop into a proper and long-running hit. Instead it was conceived of as Doctor Who methadone, and then, in its second season, sunk to being a further step removed – a show made to fulfill the need for thirteen episodes of itself a year. However good it was eventually retooled into being, the real tragedy was that it was never again allowed to be the show that could do alien carnivore shape-shifters making the bride look pregnant on her wedding day, and then follow it up with an evil circus made of film clips. And while it was allowed to be that, nobody really tried to make it succeed. Was Torchwood as originally conceived a good show?
We’ll never actually know.