Tony needs an exorcist.
Torchwood’s brief from the beginning was to do something different to Doctor Who, something grittier, more grown-up, more realistically complex in terms of human relationships – including the sexual dimension which Doctor Who had shied away from in all its Classic decades and which, in its introduction to New Who, divided (and continues to divide) the audience.
As well as all the relationship truth and the sexy edginess, the rest of its mandate was to deliver a kind of science-fiction magical realism – ground the show in the mundane, but force the mundane to meet the extraordinary, week after week.
After the pilot episode, which delivered plenty of high concept thinking, a good solid bit of Russell T Davies MacGuffinry, and a death, it was (incoming Who showrunner) Chris Chibnall who was trusted to first take Torchwood out for a spin, and in Day One, he delivered all the way down the menu as far as the series’ brief was concerned.
The first thing you notice, looking back at Day One ten years on, is how young all the cast members are. Obviously a decade has gone by, but where the effect is especially noticeable is in the performance of Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper. Contrasting this Gwen with the Gwen of Children of Earth and Miracle Day is like night and day, and absolutely shows the journey she goes on. From the start, Gwen is the member of the Torchwood team who brings the humanity in – she’s the one who complains they shouldn’t have access to all the information they do, that it contravenes the civil liberties of the people they essentially spy on. It’s so novel a concept, so far removed from the rarified air of the Hub, where the chief concern is on capturing dangerous aliens and dealing with extra-terrestrial and extra-temporal threats, that the idea that ordinary people even have civil liberties is treated as something of a joke between them. But Gwen’s not prepared to give up on the things she swore to uphold and protect in her daylight, regular job as a street copper. She’s the one who’s a little reluctant to embrace the ‘we’ of Torchwood, treating the team as ‘you’ for quite some time.
In terms of a plot, you can’t really get more basic than Chibnall’s idea here – in fact it’s so basic, it’s more or less the plot of a cheap porn movie: alien gas-creature comes to Earth, infects the body of a young woman named Carys Fletcher, and makes her sex a succession of men to death. The titillation factor is high here, and Chibnall and director Brian Kelly acknowledge it fully, both in terms of the shots of the initial sex-death (with shots going high up thighs to ensure we get the point that there’s penetration here), and the scene in which Carys, the unfortunate host of the alien, tries to seduce Gwen to death, but discovers (for all the background noise at the time about Torchwood’s ‘gay agenda’) that somehow a woman’s orgasmic energy is not any use to the creature living inside her. ‘It has to be a man,’ she almost growls.
But for all that initial titillation, Chibnall’s script, and particularly the performances from Eve Myles as Gwen and Sara Lloyd Gregory as the hapless Carys hammer one thing home – the sex may be the driver of the alien’s action, its motivation for coming here, but really this is a possession story. This is Torchwood does The Exorcist. The Sexorcist, even (as the porn version is probably called). That means what we have, as in all possession stories, is a conflict of desires and permissions, a conflict between the abused and the abuser. It probably takes some of the fun and the watchability out of Day One to think that what you’re actually watching is a young girl get repeatedly raped (not by the men she seduces, but by the force that’s taken over her body). If you think that’s reading too much darkness into the script, imagine that instead of grabbing random men for sex, Carys self-harmed every time the alien made its presence felt, stuck a knife right into her own hand, say. She’d be the victim of the alien force were that the case, and she’s still the victim of the force as it drives her to feed it the orgasmic energy of Cardiff’s men. The alien violates her body, against her will, and uses it to kill.
This is some deep, dark, grittily realistic stuff with which to wrestle in your second episode, and of course for Gwen, her first day on the job.
You need to counterbalance that grimness with character and humour if you’re not going to make Torchwood into something so dark it could be Scandinavian, and Chibnall does the job, giving each of the Torchwood crew at least a couple of great lines, developing some tension between Gwen and Owen, and showing both Ianto and Tosh as her potential allies within the group dynamic. Jack of course is centre stage whenever he can be, but the script is fairly well balanced to prevent it becoming a John Barrowman Vanity Project, and to give him the due he deserves, he never seeks to make it that either. But the key scenes as far as Gwen’s future in the Torchwood team are concerned are certainly focused on Gwen and Jack – it becomes clear to us as it becomes clear to Gwen exactly what she can bring to this team of alien investigators and world-protectors: the human dimension. The connection with people’s actual, day-to-day, ordinary lives, with their ups and downs, their complications and burdens and joys. As the only member of the team with a life outside the Hub, she is of course perfectly placed to bring that dimension to it, and her response to Jack’s fairly flip comment about doing all they can is to print out episodes from Carys’ life – school reports, emails, photos, things that put flesh on the bones of the case, that stop her being just another alien statistic and instead allow her to be a real living, breathing, fighting human being, and one who’s being used and traumatised to feed an alien drug habit just as surely as, eventually, the children in Children of Earth will be. It’s worth noting that Kai Owen’s role as Rhys, Gwen’s boyfriend at the start of the show, is never knowingly underwritten, and Owen himself never overplays it, or milks the emotion or the drama of his position – he’s simply there, stalwart at the start, and as the series goes on, more and more realistically angry about the sacrifices of her ‘real life’ that Gwen is forced to make to save the world.
Day One is a punchy, strong first outing for Gwen as a full member of the Torchwood team, its subject matter as dark and traumatic as anything that’s to come in episodes like Countrycide or Adrift, but balanced with humour, with characterisation and with pace to make sure it never dwells too long on the horrors of its possession storyline. It’s often the case that episode 2, or chapter 2 come to that, will tell you more about whether you’re going to enjoy a series or a book than the pilot or opening paragraphs – there’s often too much of a burden to build the world in those first footsteps into a new reality. Episode 2 of Torchwood delivered science-fiction magical realism right down the line, pitched at a hundred miles an hour and with verve, pace, and an enthusiastic cast of cleverly written and enigmatic characters. Day One, far more than the pilot, is what Torchwood Series 1 was going to be about. Give it another spin today and go back to the real beginning.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk