Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures

Over the past few weeks, I watched the entirety of Torchwood and all but the last two parter of The Sarah Jane Adventures. I don’t think either show is as strong as its parent show, but they each represent interesting extrapolations of the original premise. Unexpectedly, I wound up liking Sarah Jane a lot more, I think it’s truer to what makes Doctor Who great, and is generally better written than the hit and miss Torchwood. I don’t know that Sarah Jane could ever be as good a show as Torchwood could potentially be, but comparing the first season of each show, Sarah Jane was more consistently engaging and narratively coherent than Torchwood.

The biggest issue I had with Torchwood is that they decided to build a spinoff around one of Who’s most charismatic and exciting characters, then proceeded to take away everything that made the character work. It makes absolutely no sense to me why they make a big deal of Jack’s mysterious past when the viewer already knows what happened to him. Now, I suppose the viewer who’d only seen Who season one wouldn’t know exactly how Jack wound up at Torchwood in our present, but you’d still know all the basics of his story. It’s weird that they’d build up this whole mystery with Jack, and then resolve it over on Doctor Who.

This is the fundamental flaw of the series so far, and it makes the character who should be the exciting center of the series doesn’t contribute much. The other characters are all interesting in some ways, but are a bit too similar. Everyone is a morally ambiguous workaholic prone to making bad personal decisions when it comes time for them to take center stage in the plot.

I think this characterization works for Owen and Gwen. Owen is the most far gone, and by starting a relationship with him, Gwen is literally throwing away her personal life for Torchwood. The best episode of the season was the heartbreaking time displacement story which featured three excellent storylines. That was a wonderful example of a story only sci-fi can do that comments on something powerful and human. The second half of the show was much more consistent than the early episodes, but I was pretty let down by the finale, which featured some really awful CGI work. Compared to the three brilliant Doctor Who finales, it was a real disappointment.

The show really feels like the Angel to Doctor Who’s Buffy. After three seasons, Who was riding high, and it’s hard to go back to a shakier first season feel. And, like the first season of Angel, Torchwood has a lot of identity issues, switching between a variety of different storytelling modes. It even features its own alien/demon Fight Club knockoff episode. I’m hoping that the show will come into its own in the next season, like Angel did. For now, I like the show, but it frequently frustrated me.

Going into The Sarah Jane Adventures, I wasn’t really expecting much. I tended not to like the goofier episodes of Who from the early years, so a series targeted exclusively to kids didn’t seem like it’d be my thing. But, Sarah Jane, right from the beginning, was well written and smart. Yes, the stories were on the goofier side at times, but it’s always fun and feels a lot more like Doctor Who than Torchwood. Much of what makes Doctor Who special is the simple joy at the unknown, for Torchwood what’s out there in the night is a menace, for Who and Sarah Jane it’s probably something amazing. I like the latter worldview a lot more, and I think it makes for a better show, that struggle to still believe in the wonder of the universe in the face of enemies from other worlds.

The first few two parters are pretty good, not anything too special. Things pick up with “Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane,” a trip to an alternate universe where Sarah Jane died and Maria’s the only one who remembers. I always like these everything is wrong kind of stories, and the trips to the past and limbo are evocative. That demon who saves Andrea’s life is a pretty menacing villain, and I didn’t even mind the bizarre dwarf guy who runs around screwing up things in time.

The first part of the season finale continues that really dark, focused approach of “Whatever Happened,” as everything we know is one again wrong and Luke actually has a family. In some pretty intense scenes, Luke is torn away from Sarah Jane and taken by ‘his’ family. The second half is a bit of a let down as this challenging moral conundrum turns out to be yet another Slitheen plot. But, even this straightforward action climax is much better than the weak confrontation with the giant CGI beast in Torchwood.

One of the things I frequently find frustrating about spinoffs is this perverse refusal to acknowledge the parent show. Torchwood occasionally featured Who continuity, but I found it hard to place that show in the same universe as Who. Sarah Jane wholeheartedly embraces its legacy, and the moments where Sarah Jane talks about the Doctor are some of the series’ best, reinforcing the idea that she has kind of become the Doctor, leading her own band of Earth defenders. And, the series’ core philosophy is much closer to Who’s than Torchwood’s gloomy outlook.

But, even though I enjoyed the first season of Sarah Jane more, I do think Torchwood has a lot more potential. If they can stop misusing their main character and make Jack more like he was on Who, the show could pick up. We’ll see what happens in season two. And, either way, I’m really glad I watched both shows in light of the events of ‘The Stolen Earth.’


Adam Arnold said...

Torchwood really does come into its own in season 2. The stakes are a lot higher and the show just might surprise you. Plus, you get a really great arc with Martha Jones and a lot of Torchwood's backstory.

I have the opposite opinion of Sarah Jane Adventures, though. It's way too kiddy. I'm glad they got rid of that annoying black girl (Kelsey) from the pilot, though, and replaced her with Clyde. I could never have watched the entire series if that Kelsey had been there the entire time. I will say that the final four episodes of Sarah Jane really made up for its shaky start.

As for Torchwood season 1's fight club-esque episode "Combat," I had a lot more respect for it when I realized it was written by Noel Clark (Mickey Smith). Plus, the episode does get followed up on in the 2nd season, so it wasn't just a throw-away.

Patrick said...

The last four of Sarah Jane were definitely the best. I think the show didn't aim too high, but did exactly what it set out to do. Torchwood had a very unclear mission, and that meant it had some amazing episodes and some real clunkers. Unfortunately, the season ended on one of their weaker episodes, which sort of sullied my opinion of the show coming out of it.

But, I'll definitely give season two a look, hopefully after Jack met up with the Doctor again, he can return to Torchwood with less internal conflict and more of the excitement that he had on Doctor Who.

The Runaway Llama said...

But, I'll definitely give season two a look, hopefully after Jack met up with the Doctor again, he can return to Torchwood with less internal conflict and more of the excitement that he had on Doctor Who.

Which is almost what happens, until he gets bogged down in angst from his past. The latter half of the season has some great episodes, but unlike adam arnold, I really didn't like Martha's mid season arc: mainly because she barely has a significant role to play. There are very few clunkers in season 2, with the possible exception of the middle episode of Martha's tenure and PJ Hammonds abysmally bland episode.