“Torchwood”: The Skip It/Watch It Guide

So this one goes out to a few of the folks who were sitting at the Geminon table at Rudy and Casey’s wedding reception last week — during dinner, the subject of Torchwood came up, and I realized that I had very strong opinions about this show that had not yet been committed to words.

Specifically, this: If watched properly, this plucky series about a team of sexy bisexual alien fighters is not only an enjoyable companion piece to Doctor Who (of which it is technically a spin-of), but genuinely great television in its own right. The proper viewing experience, however, requires skipping about 50 percent of the show. Maybe actually more? (It depends on how seriously you take Torchwood: Miracle Day.)

I don’t know why Torchwood is one of the most uneven series of all time. It just is. As sci-fi fans, we learn to accept these things and just enjoy watching Spike from Buffy make out with John Barrowman — because when Torchwood gets something right, it gets it VERY RIGHT.

So let’s get into it!

Watch after watching (if you care): Seasons 1 and 2 of “Doctor Who.” Why? Well, those episodes explain both OUR HERO, Captain Jack Harkness, as well as what the fuck the Torchwood Institute is supposed to be. There’s set-up built into “Torchwood,” so you don’t NEED to watch, but the experience is much richer if you do.

1. “Everything Changes”: Watch it. It’s the pilot. If you’ve never heard of Who or Torchwood before, it’ll give you the basics of what you need to know, and the characters and world are well-introduced. Plus, Cardiff jokes, same-sex makeouts and a pretty wonderfully twist-y ending.

2. “Day One”: Watch it. More same-sex makeouts! There’s alien sex gas, too. And there’s also this scene, which makes me laugh SO HARD. SO HARD. There’s nothing like watching a man lovingly embrace a severed hand. Torchwood provides.

3. “Ghost Machine”: Skip it. Unless you really like watching rape scenes!

4. “Cyberwoman”: Maybe skip it. When I saw this episode, I kind of hated it. Writing-wise, it’s a mess. It does, however, feature a scene where a half-lady/half-robot gets into a fistfight with a pterodactyl. If that last sentence sounds appealing, I’d say go for it.

5. “Small Worlds”: Skip it. Fairies. Seriously.

6. “Countrycide”: Skip it. Oooooh, I HAAAAAAATED this episode. Pacing-wise, there’s a whole lot of wandering around in the woods with no purpose — it’s really dumb and gross and boring. Admittedly, I instinctually hate all cannibalism-related media, and I remember at least one friend liking it at the time — but this is my Skip It/Watch It Guide, gosh darn it.

7. “Greeks Bearing Gifts”: Watch it. A good example of a character-focused stand-alone episode, featuring the under-served Tosh (no relation to Daniel) and, yes, more same-sex makeouts.

8. “They Keep Killing Suzie”: Watch it. Builds nicely on events from the pilot, has a few good twists, and I really love the title.

9. “Random Shoes”: Skip it. I had to reread the episode summary to remember what even happened — while the premise is interesting, episodes focused on one-off characters are always fairly skippable.

10. “Out of Time”: Watch it. There’s some heartbreaking stuff in this one, but it’s a really good ensemble piece.

11. “Combat”: Skip it. Weevil fight club. Booooooo.

12. “Captain Jack Harkness”: Watch it. 1940s time travel fun! Lots of sexy men in sexy Army coats being sexy! I’m a fan. It’s a great episode.

13. “End Of Days”: Skip it. I wish this episode was a lot better than it is — unfortunately, while it does try to bring together various elements of the season for one big rift-related climax, it’s a mess with a stupid monster to boot. You can try watching it if you like, or you can just skip to the 44 minute mark and watch the last two minutes. That’s all you really need to see. Trust me on this.

Watch after watching (if you care): Season 3 of “Doctor Who.” Why? Well, the way things originally aired, Season 1 of “Torchwood” was broadcast before Season 3 of “Doctor Who,” and the cliffhanger which ended “Torchwood”‘s first season lead directly to Captain Jack’s entrance into “Who”‘s Season 3 storyline — then “Torchwood” Season 2 picks up after the events of “Who” Season 3… IT MAKES SENSE, TRUST ME.

1. “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”: Watch it. This episode isn’t necessarily the best episode ever, but it contains probably one of Torchwood‘s sexiest scenes of all time. And James Marsters from Buffy makeout fun! NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT.

2. “Sleeper”: Watch it. Stand-alone, yep, but this might be one of the flat-out best episodes of Torchwood‘s first two seasons — a great thriller.

3. “To the Last Man”: Watch it. Time travel romance! I’m always a sucker for that sort of thing. Also a nice look into Torchwood daily life.

4. “Meat”: Skip it. Unless you’re really really into Gwen’s relationship with Rhys. Are you, though? Is anyone ever in the history of creation?

5. “Adam”: Maybe skip it. I really struggled with this one — the premise is an interesting twist on that great Jonathan episode of Buffy, and one or two plot things are revealed.

6. “Reset”: Watch It. Martha Jones shows up! And then it’s time for a very big TWIST!

7. “Dead Man Walking”: Watch it. Let us continue dealing with this very big TWIST, and Martha Jones guest-starring!

8. “A Day in the Death”: Watch it. We are not yet done dealing with this very big TWIST! And this is the last episode with Martha Jones in it.

9. “Something Borrowed”: Skip it. In classic Torchwood fashion, this relatively important episode (featuring the wedding of Gwen and Rhys) is a big ol’ mess. This show’s track record with comedy? Not so great.

10. “From Out of the Rain”: Skip it. Carnie folk! And a little backstory for Jack. But really unmemorable.

11. “Adrift”: Watch it. Torchwood at its bleakest is quite often Torchwood at its best, and that’s definitely true in this case.

12. “Fragments”: Watch it. Yay backstory! Specifically, how everyone who’s not Gwen originally joined Torchwood. Some great stuff here.

13. “Exit Wounds”: Watch it. Big plot stuff — some of it incredibly silly and over-the-top, some of it genuinely affecting — but on balance worth watching. Major character death, but also more James Marsters! So, the sour with the sweet.

Watch after watching (if you care): Season 2 of Torchwood, officially. But you seriously don’t need to watch a single moment of Torchwood prior to “Children of Earth,” if you don’t want to.

Episodes 1-5: WATCH THE CRAP OUT OF IT. I’ll be honest, it is not easy viewing. Seriously, I was showing it to a friend of mine while hanging at my parents’ house a few years ago, and my parents wandered in around hour 3. “Guys, I’m just gonna tell you this: There is some hardcore child murder coming up,” I said, because I love my parents and if I can keep them from watching child murder, I will.

But my parents? They kept watching, because it was just that damn compelling. Friends, IT IS GOOD TELEVISION. Short version of the premise: One day, out of the blue, all the children on planet Earth fall under the control of an alien presence. Why this happens, and how the Earth’s governments react to control the situation, and how/why Torchwood gets tangled up in the mess, becomes one giant ball of tragedy.

I honestly believe this: Anyone who doesn’t give a shit about Doctor Who or Torchwood or sci-fi or whatever, but does care about what compelling television looks like, needs to watch Children of Earth. To do it properly, you would watch one episode a night for five nights straight, as that’s how the show aired originally (just part of its brilliance). But I won’t blame you for marathoning it. It really is that compelling.

Here’s the math equation that will sum it up: 24 + West Wing + X-Files + TOTALLY SAD AND TRAGIC CHILD MURDER = TV that does not make you feel good, but makes you demand more from television.

Which is why it’s really sad, what happens next…

Episodes 1-10: Skip it.

Torchwood started off with a mission to be the gayest, sexiest X-Files pastiche to ever infiltrate the airwaves. As the show continued, it became less gay and sexy (with the occasional spike here or there), which was increasingly disappointing — until “Children of Earth,” which was (as previously mentioned) in a class of its own.

You would think, then, that a move to America (specifically the Starz network) and a return to the show’s super-sexy/gay adult rating, combined with a high-concept premise similar to “Children of Earth,” would be, like, MEGA-TORCHWOOD. Torchwood Voltron. However you might put it.

Instead, despite a few really great moments and the best efforts of a nerd-royalty cast, you get a real mess of a season of television, one that lead to no shortage of inside jokes between us brave souls who struggled through (“GIANT EARTH VAGINA!!!!!!!”). There’s some compelling stuff in the first few episodes, but by the end you’re really just in it for Bill Pullman being creepy and Lauren Ambrose’s really fabulous coats.

There’s occasional talk that someday, Torchwood might return, but which version? The uneven regular series? The brilliant “Children of Earth” edition? Or “Miracle Day,” with all of Torchwood‘s flaws and none of its strengths? It’s a real roll of the dice, one I’d be fine with never facing. Watching Torchwood is a lot like life: Appreciate the good moments, and Retcon away the bad.

About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on October 16, 2012, in No Spoilers, Skip It/Watch It Guide, TV and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Hah, I see my comment was 100% off the mark. My description of Torchwood has always been “It feels like watching a show you used to love that’s been on about two seasons too long and has really gone downhill — and it feels that way from the first episode.” I don’t know any other way to explain why I immediately connected with the characters and felt like I was watching an established show, but was rolling my eyes by the end of every episode. “Countrycide,” being genuinely scary and having a surprisingly hot romance/sex subplot, was the first and then the only episode I felt like stood up in its own right, before the show got weird and silly again. (Ok I liked “Captain Jack Harkness,” for but Reasons, not real reasons.)

    • Obviously, my experience was totally different, but I really like your description of it being a show that’s two seasons too long, right from the start. Maybe part of that comes from it being a spin-off? Or because as good as the characters and setting are, the show just didn’t hold together. It’s one of television’s great mysteries!

  2. Huge thanks for this – you have turned my Weekend With Strep into a Weekend of Hotness. I kept avoiding Torchwood because I’d only seen, errr, one of the forgettable ones, and because I don’t like the latest Doctor particularly. But I am adoring skipping through. Sexy sci-fi + amoxicillin > amoxicillin + YA boarding school novels, which is what I had planned for the weekend.

  3. Torchwood is largely terrible, excepting COE. But I still love it – mostly for the laughs. That scene with the Doctor’s hand is hysterical!

  4. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR šŸ™‚ Sorry for all caps. I am not a 12 year old. I am just really excited haha

  5. Thank you so much for this! I have been bingeing on Dr. Who in breathless anticipation of the 50th, and I hit that fatigue point where even my favorite episodes are begging me not to re-watch them again. So I turned to Torchwood, but just a few episodes in I realized it was hit or miss.

    I’m still going to watch them all, but you have saved me many crushing letdowns by managing my expectations and giving me epic episodes to look forward to!

  6. I found the writing, directing and acting of Random Shoes absolutely stellar. To have missed that single episode would be akin to having missed one of my favorite pieces of literature – the kind of book that changes you, the kind of story that both opens up and heals old wounds, the kind of character – uncomfortably familiar – who stays with you, a part of you, always.

  7. thank you for the guide….I have favorite shows too…but there are some episodes you can totally skip too. Also I never watched Doctor Who, so I know I’ll miss some cool why’s this and that info.

  8. Foochin Moochin

    I just finished watching the whole series and have to say that I disagree about series 4. While it was different, being much more Americanized… I liked it, and can only complain about the endings of the first two episodes.

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