Torchwood: Aliens, Monsters and Sex Coming To BBC America
Aliens, time travel, sex, monsters, violence, sex, conspiracies, cover-ups and oh yeah, sex. "Torchwood," which comes to the United States this Saturday on BBC America, is the little brother of "Doctor Who," or maybe the raunchy cousin who's got all the good porn on his computer. "Torchwood" takes the popular character Captain Jack Harkness from the first season of Russell T. Davies's revival of "Doctor Who" and gives him a team and a show of his own. He's the leader of Torchwood Three in Cardiff, Wales, a team that's "separate from the government, outside the police and beyond the United Nations." (Torchwood One was destroyed in the season two finale of "Doctor Who" and we never hear much about the other Torchwood bases.)
"Doctor Who" has always been a show for the whole family, but "Torchwood" is designed for the older crowd and you probably shouldn't let the kids stay in the room. The creators have embraced the show's adult status with glee; the villain of the second episode is an alien who kills men by having sex with them and drinking in the orgasmic energy.
Some of the creative minds behind "Torchwood" came to the States recently for the San Diego Comic-Con and Classic-Horror had the chance to sit down and talk to them. We spoke to head writer Chris Chibnall, writer Noel Clarke (best known to "Doctor Who" audiences as the actor who played Mickey Smith), producer Richard Stokes and FX/prosthetics supervisor Matt O'Toole.
Torchwood is a covert agency whose job is "tracking down alien life on Earth and arming the human race against the future," John Barrowman says over the opening of each show. "The twenty-first century is when everything changes, and you've gotta be ready." Barrowman plays Captain Jack Harkness, a time-traveler from the fifty-first century who's stuck in our time. Just what we've got to be ready for, Jack's not telling anyone. The Torchwood team's got their hands full in the present, anyway. The team's base is right near a rift in time and space and their job is to deal with whatever gets through it. Usually that's aliens wanting to do harm to the human race, but now and again there's something different - like a trio of travelers from the 1950s that accidentally slip into the twenty-first century and can't get back again (despite the show's ties to "Doctor Who," the Doctor and his TARDIS never make an appearance).
"It's found its own identity," producer Richard Stokes says. "Although it's a spin-off of 'Doctor Who,' you don't have to know 'Doctor Who' to be able to enjoy it. It's a sci-fi show that I think stands alone. When we first were making it, comparisons to other shows seemed to be the easy way of people knowing what to expect when they watch it. So we were saying, 'it's a bit like "The X-Files," it's a bit like this, a bit like that.' But actually, I would hope that the viewers and the readers, by the time they get to the end of the first series, kind of go, 'oh yeah, I know what'--"
"It's a bit like 'Torchwood,'" prosthetics supervisor Matt O'Toole chimes in.
Stokes laughs. "Yeah, absolutely."
New Recruit Gwen Cooper
The audience is introduced to Torchwood through Gwen Cooper. She's a policewoman who spots Jack's team questioning a murder victim they've temporarily resurrected. Understandably spooked, Gwen searches for answers. Who are these people, who do they work for, where did Captain Jack Harkness come from and what on Earth are they really doing? "[Gwen is] our eyes and we enter into Torchwood with her," says writer Chris Chibnall.
Gwen tracks down the team and infiltrates the base, where she meets Jack and the team: Owen Harper, the medic, Toshiko Sato, who specializes in computers and technology, Suzie Costello, who is utterly committed to her job and Ianto Jones, the receptionist/butler who has a secret of his own. In a plot twist that will surprise no one, Jack invites Gwen to join the team. "She's the only one with a relationship, the only one with a kind of life that she's trying to keep going," says Chibnall. "And Jack says to her, 'Don't let go of your life.'"
"At the beginning, they're still quite cold," writer Noel Clarke says of the Torchwood team. "They do their duty and they do it well and when [Gwen] comes in, she's maybe the first person to stand up to Jack and say, 'Hold on a minute. Maybe you shouldn't just do it that way.'"
"She brings humanity," says Chibnall. "She brings the consideration of human emotion to them, because Toshiko is so technical and Owen is focused on the biological and medical. She can see the complexity of the emotional situation. Jack is much more gung-ho. And actually, the continuing story of Torchwood is what Jack and Gwen bring to each other and that'll continue way beyond season one. "
The Omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness
"I have to say, with all honesty, my favorite character in all of science fiction is Captain Jack," says Chibnall. "I love watching him. I think he's a brilliant, brilliant hero. He's a great example across all generations. And I think John Barrowman, who plays him, is magnificent. He absolutely defines that character. He's a brilliant actor and that character - to have such a sense of fun! But also to be a brilliant leader of Torchwood and to be able to support his own show. You've got an omnisexual fifty-first century guy leading a thirteen episode show in Britain and I think that's an amazing achievement. "
The omnisexual Captain Jack sets the tone for an environment were sexuality goes beyond the simple divisions of gay and straight. "Which is the great thing about him being from the 51st century," Chibnall says. "It's not like he has any concept of sexuality. There's a line in Episode Two which I wrote where he says, 'Oh, you and your cute little categories,' when people are talking about the sexuality. It's completely irrelevant to him. He will sleep with anything with a zip code."
British television is generally more liberal about sex than its American counterparts, but even in the UK, "Torchwood" is pushing boundaries. "Sci-fi shows tend to be the shows that - because of alien races and alien cultures - they can talk about tolerance and lack of prejudice," says Clarke. " And there's no reason why that should be limited [when it comes to] sexuality. If there's a character, your hero, your coolest, kick-ass, hero, why can't he be omnisexual?"
Clarke adds, "It gives - not that this is a children's show - but it gives a good message to young people growing up. 'Don't be afraid of what you are.' If you're a boy and you like boys, so what?"
Socially progressive types will enjoy the representation of non-traditional sexuality, while everyone else can sit back and enjoy the pretty actors making out with each other. Because - has it been mentioned yet? There's a lot of sex on this show.
"['Torchwood'] is about a group of ordinary people coming together," says Chibnall. "It's almost like a dysfunctional family. The most dangerous thing about Torchwood is Torchwood. Season one's about temptation for ordinary people that save the world, but they've also got these incredibly tempting things in front of them. You know, hiding a Cyberwoman in a basement. Having a thing that lets you read people's minds. The spray that attracts people."
In fact, some of the fans who saw the UK airing of "Torchwood" were concerned about the scene early in the series where Owen uses a pheromone spray to attract a reluctant woman. They felt that the woman couldn't consent and so it was a form of sexual assault.
Chibnall states emphatically that they never meant to give that impression. "Obviously, people can read things the way they want, and that's the great thing about drama. That's not the intention of that scene. It's not directed in that way. It's not written that way. Also, why would we have that character as a hero? No. Maybe we didn't make it clear enough, I don't know, but it's absolutely not the intention."
"The spray only accentuates feelings that are already there," suggests Clarke.
"Yeah," agrees Chibnall. "And actually, if you look at the way the scene is directed - she's looking at him, she's eyeing him up. You know, it's meant to be comic. Really. It's a comic scene. And sometimes I think when you interpret comic scenes in a very serious way, it forces a misreading. It's a tricky one." Chibnall adds, "When you write something, you never know how it's going to be interpreted, you know, and you can't really correct that. You have to let the discussion go."
American Format, British Storytelling
Although "Doctor Who" is an established British show, the creators also take inspiration from American shows, particularly the Joss Whedon creations, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly." "I think the combination of emotional storytelling and action-adventure and science-fiction and fantasy absolutely plays into 'Torchwood.' I think it's loads of influences, really! It's kind of hard to identify just one. But I think, I think what we really wanted to do was make a show that was a little more American in feel that some of the British shows. A bit more international," says Chibnall.
Clarke says, "It's the sort of format that has worked for Whedon's stuff which has proved so popular. It's stuff that our country was seriously lacking. I think we've tapped into that market that people didn't really know was there."
They're still creating something uniquely British, though. "What's lovely for us as British writers, I think as well, is to do a kind of mythologizing of British cities and British culture. Traditionally we look to America, the big mythological cities like New York and L.A., and it's great to have one of our own, as well," says Chibnall. "I think the single story of the week and then the stories of the week going on to make a larger story and connecting throughout the season of thirteen episodes, that's what we would consider a very American style of storytelling. We've used that. But filtering all through a British sensibility and a British kind of cheekiness and naughtiness and irreverence and sense of fun, really."
Chris Chibnall's job as head writer goes beyond scripts. "I work with the writers, I look at the rushes, I look at the edits, all that kind of stuff and work very closely with Russell T. Davies [the show's creator], and [executive producer] Julie Gardner as well. It's a team show, really. It's a very collaborative process. It's a great job. Best job in the world. "
Noel Clarke first met this creative team as an actor and wasn't initially taken seriously as a writer. "Being in 'Doctor Who' I knew Russell T. Davis and Julie Gardner, 'cause it's like a big kind of family. They announced they were going to do 'Torchwood' and I was like, wow, you know, 'I can write, guys, a little bit!' And they're like, 'Yes, of course you can, hooray and marvelous.' But I kept persisting and then...."
"What he's not telling you is he had his own movie out, called KiDulthood," Chibnall interjects.
"So, they saw my movie and they were like, 'Actually, we'd like you to write for "Torchwood."' And then Chris came on board and Chris helped me along, because writing a movie is very different to writing TV," says Clarke.
Monsters and Gore
Matt O'Toole, the effects and prosthetic supervisor, loves working on the show. "Name another science fiction program where there's that many creatures in any one series. I mean, you know, there's not. Even some of the big American shows don't have that many creatures."
A recurring alien on the show is the Weevil. Hundreds have fallen through the rift and now live in the sewers in Cardiff. Most of them stay under the radar, but every now and then one goes rogue and the Torchwood team has to deal with them. "There's a real humanity to [the Weevils], it's like they could be us," says writer Noel Clarke. "They're us, when we've got nothing but rage."
"It's basically sort of an animatronic face," O'Toole says of the Weevil prosthetics. "Like the same kind of animatronics as Gorillas in the Mist. The actual actor's eyes are looking through the holes in the face and then there's an anamatronic mouth and lips. We've got a stunt head, which is basically just foam heads, so the stunt men can go flying through the air and get punched and kicked and then we have the Wookie head, which is the jaw control, so when you move your jaw, the mouth opens, but it's got mechanical cables, so it goes through the back and lifts up top lip so you get a little bit more for your money."
Creature performer Paul Kasey brings the aliens to life. "He's pretty much done the movement of any monster over five foot tall, for 'Doctor Who' and 'Torchwood,'" producer Richard Stokes says. "The hardest thing about prosthetics, actually, is trying to find time when we can both use him."
"You can tell when it's a stunt man," O'Toole says. "'Cause they've got mechanical sort of robotical, 'I'm a stunt man and I'm going to fight like this.' Nothing against stunt men, they're real brave and do great jobs, but when you get the creature performer in, the proper creature performer, Paul Kasey, he just pulls it off and you believe it. You go 'oooh!'"
"I remember the first time I saw Paul without a mask on," says Stokes. "I think we'd been filming for about two and a half weeks and I did sort of, 'I'm sorry, who are you?' He's like, 'Oh, hello, I'm Paul.' And I'd been talking to him for the past two and a half weeks and having conversations, but he looked like a Weevil."
"You gotta have an underskull that sits on his head, off a head cast of him, so it's an exact fit, so it's quite a tight squeeze," O'Toole says of the prosthetics Kasey wears. "When he comes out of the mask, quite often he's got big red ridges around his head where he's been wearing the mask all day. But it can take about an hour, to get him in there. And as the shoot goes on and we get more savvy and more accustomed to it, get him in quick and get him out quick, it can take twenty minutes sometimes."
O'Toole lists The Thing and the remake of Dawn of the Dead as his favorite horror movies and loves Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comic. He went into makeup and effects, "not to necessarily do old age character makeup. I wanted to do monsters. Monsters and gore. So, bloody monsters," he laughs. "I think it's the still ever-present Fangoria nerd in me. I love the gore. It's something about the human mortality. It's just that kind of, like - gore and blood and you know, limbs flying off."
When they got the chance for lots of gore in the season one episode Countrycide, O'Toole and his team went a little overboard. "We built too much gore. It was like, skinned bodies, hanging bodies covered in plastic all with blood drenched inside the plastic. We dressed the set essentially with as much gore as we thought we could get away with. Just like blood all over the floor, everything. And when we came back down the following morning, half of it had been removed, because it was too much."
Stokes says, "Yeah, it was very interesting, because with that set - I mean, it was an extraordinary set - both the design team and the effects did a fantastic job of making it look just horrible. Everyone who walked in there just went, 'That is extraordinary!' So fantastic! And about three hours later, I got an email from [head writer] Chris Chibnall, who'd seen some of the initial rushes, just going, 'Have we gone too far?'"
"Suddenly, we were going, 'Do you know what, we've all been seduced by how good it looked.' We hadn't actually had the producer chat of thinking, 'I think we might have gone a bit too far?' We had to pull back a bit," says Stokes. "I actually remember that day, wandering around the location just having a look at it and having a chat with [O'Toole] and the director and going, 'How much do you need to see? How well lit is it going to be?' It is a fine line, of almost wanting to show off the extraordinary work the team does, and at the same time, not have viewers who don't like gore go, 'You know what? I'm just going to switch over and watch a different channel.'"
Fans at Heart
Chibnall finds it difficult to name a favorite science fiction show. "Oh my goodness me!" he laughs. "That's like saying, 'what's your favorite ice cream', isn't it? 'Well, on this day it's that...'" But he does have a few favorites. "I particularly love 'Firefly' and Serenity. I think the final episode of 'Firefly' was absolutely extraordinary. 'Battlestar Galactica.' 'Farscape,' I particularly love. They were setting the bar very high. And actually, they deal with sex and love and lust as well, so I think that's terrific, very funny and very sharp - the writing on 'Farscape' was extraordinary."
"For me, it's the Whedon stuff. Particularly 'Angel,'" says Clarke. "And 'Dark Angel'! Jessica Alba - James Cameron from back in the day. Got cancelled early. I used to love that. 'SG-1.' Stargate..."
"We could just go on listing all the shows ever!" says Chibnall, who says he's also a fan of "Lost" and "Heroes."
Chibnall's mention of "Firefly" as a favorite leads to the obvious (for the geekiest of us) question: Captain Jack with Captain Mal from "Firefly." What would they do together?
"That's a good show right there!" says Chibnall
"Oh, I know what Captain Jack would want to do with him!" Clarke laughs.
"Yeah, absolutely. He'd have the whole crew!" agrees Chibnall. "I'd love to see Jack on board that ship! That would be fantastic - with all of them! I think they would have a riot, you know? I think it would start with a fight. But I think they'd come to an appreciation of each other - of each other's tactics and each other's modus operandi. I think they'd be there with all the drinks and the food in the cabin... I think they would enjoy each other's company! I think there'd be a bit of vying for superiority first, but yeah. Oh, if only! There's a fantasy! Someone must be doing a fanfiction about that."
Torchwood premieres on BBC America Saturday, September 8 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.