“The most dangerous thing about Torchwood, is Torchwood,” says head writer, Chris Chibnall, then he waggles his eyebrows in a way that makes me wonder if he missed his calling. Chibnall is a born entertainer, animated and sharp and he knows how to work a tease like nobody’s business. Maybe that’s why he’s so good at writing the likes of Captain Jack Harkness and his merry band of alien hunting hedonists.
This is not your father’s Doctor Who. This is dark, sexy, go-for-the-throat to bite or to kiss, cinematic joy. This is Torchwood.
I sat down with Chris Chibnall and Dr. Who regular, Noel Clarke (Mickey) on a hot and sticky afternoon in San Diego. It was their first visit to Comic Con and they were just hours short of being blown away by a room packed with enthusiastic fans.
We won’t discuss how so many Americans came to be in love with a show that’s never aired here, but suffice to say, the mood was electric.
For those of you who have not yet come over to the Cardiff side, here’s Chibnall’s 101 on the new BBCAmerica series, Torchwood.
“I would say it’s a group of mates in Wales, who hunt down aliens and gather alien technology to arm the human race against the future. It’s an informal, roguish group led by Captain Jack Harkness, who’s an omni-sexual, 51st Century ex-time agent. It’s the greatest show in the world. And it’s enormous fun!”
Correct, on all counts.
Fans of Doctor Who will already be familiar with Captain Jack Harkness, the flamboyant flyboy who swooped in to rescue Rose in the incredibly creepy “Empty Child” episode of the series. Played by musical stage star John Barrowman, Jack has 1940’s style, a wicked sense of humor and the charm of a well-rehearsed con man.
“Russell T. Davis created [Jack] and John Barrowman came in and really took it by the scruff of the neck,” says Chibnall.
“He gave it charm,” says Clarke. “It could have been done very military like, but he added this cheekiness to it.”
Chibnall agrees. “It’s the twinkle.”
Twinkle, huh? Not a word one usually associates with alien-hunting action heroes, but some how, here, it works. And that fact is even odder considering the tone of the series.
“[On Torchwood], you can go with the adult themes that you can’t go with on [Doctor Who] and not just in violence and sexual stuff, but really sort of delving into the moral stuff,” says Noel Clarke. “Torchwood is about the dark side of humanity and understanding what it’s like to be human in the 21st Century with all the problems and temptations that are around.”
“Our characters make mistakes,” says Chibnall. “They’re human and they go on journeys that are very complex. We’ve allowed our characters to go into corners where they make errors. The umbrella theme of the first season is the most dangerous thing about Torchwood is Torchwood. There’s moral complexity. The issues of being human and living in a city in modern society, that’s what Torchwood was created to investigate.”
But even though the themes are dark, the actors are most decidedly not.
Says Chibnall with great sincerity, “The whole cast is absolutely a delight to work with. Brilliant professionals and such fun. It’s such a joyous set to be on and they have great chemistry.”
And as they say in the business, it all starts at the top, and that would be with the wild and wicked John Barrowman, who both Clarke and Chibnall reluctantly admit is the actor who’s most like his character.
“What’s lovely is when you’ve got somebody who is such perfect casting,” says Chibnall. “I can’t imagine anybody else in the world playing that character. He’s so brilliant at it and he’s such a joy to write for and to be around and he’s so creative and fun. Yes, he influences the character and vice versa.”
They combined their thoughts to say sum up the other characters in a phrase or two.
Gwen, the audience POV. A former police officer who is new to Torchwood.
“Human. The working woman. She helps the team find their human roots.”
Tosh, Torchwood’s resident computer geek:
“Workaholic. Searching. Dedicated.”
Owen, an MD who handles himself in a fight like no doctor I’ve ever seen.
“Troubled. Passionate. Passionate about the job.”
Ianto, the group’s concierge, admin and buffer between them and the world:
“Dry sense of humor, secretive, buttoned up. Liberally buttoned up, but the buttons come a little bit undone in Season Two. ”
And speaking of Season Two, Buffy fans will be delighted to see James Marsters (Spike) going toe-to-toe with Captain Jack in an episode that was crafted specifically for him.
“What a nice guy,” says Chibnall. “He phoned up Russell and said, ‘I love the show and if you have anything in mind. . . ‘ We’d been talking about a specific character we wanted to do a story for and as soon as we heard he was interested it was like, oooh, he could be that person. So it was specially written for him and he’s exceeded our expectations. I cannot say enough good things about him.”
But the big question is, do James and John lock lips?
Chibnall squirms in his seat and says, “Having to bite my tongue because. . . ooh.”
Can I take that as a yes?
One thing that truly sets Torchwood apart from past British TV shows are the production values. They call it making a show that looks “American”. I call it making a weekly mini-movie.
“We’re talking about mythology,” says Chibnall. “And a lot of our TV has been mythologically American. A lot of British TV is very dowdy, very kitchen sink, and we were like ‘no’ let’s make a sexy city show. [In Torchwood] Cardiff is a character.”
Clarke adds, “As we for years have watched shows like Angel, saw shots of LA and thought, ‘I want to go there.’ We want people to go, ‘wow, Cardiff is a really cool.'”
A major factor in making Cardiff ‘sexy’ is the production design, which most people take for granted. The high-flying establishing shots, incredibly detailed set design and the use of landmarks such as The Millennium Centre, all filmed in glorious HD.
And if you were lucky enough to gain entrance to the inner sanctum, known as ‘The Hub’, you would find a full 360 degree set that is complete almost to the top (there’s a bit of CGI filling in the very upper level). There are details everywhere you look, lots of nooks and crannies and a mix of old Victorian and high-tech Sci Fi that really works.
Says Chibnall, “There’s a fantastic story behind it, if you talk to the designers. [The Hub] used to be a train station connecting the three Torchwood branches, which is why the writing is on the wall. Itâ€™s like a Victorian train station that has been converted. And there are more nooks and crannies to come.”
He says they went for “epic” in scope and you can hardly argue that point. You can argue (and we did) that the series is “American” in its look and feel. Yes, there is a bit of “The X-Files” meets “Angel” with a touch of “Supernatural” thrown in, but this series is strictly cable when it comes to sex, language and in at least one case, violence.
Chibnall and Clarke both looked at me like I was nuts when I suggested the show was too sexy for regular TV. They insist there’s very little sex on the show outside of one episode that involves an alien who thrives on orgasms. (Imagine getting that past American censors.) There is a liberal sprinkling of language and body parts that our censors would never allow on basic American TV.
And then there’s Captain Jack the “omni-sexual hero.”
“Jack will shag anything with a zip code,” says Chibnall quoting one of the show’s writers. “He just doesn’t have those barriers.”
But Americans are used to sci fi heroes who disarm with martial arts rather than a sarcastic remark and a flirty smile.
“Welcome to the 21st Century!” laughs Noel Clarke. “Sci Fi shows, a lot of the time, have been a commentary on tolerance; races, religions, why should sexuality be the last to boot?”
Chibnall points out that American TV has set the greatest precedent of all time with the first interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura on the original Star Trek. An episode that was banned by many stations at that time.
“There are men who like men and women who like women,” says Clarke passionately. “People should understand it.”
If there’s a chance in heck of making converts out of naysayers, John Barrowman can do it.
“The character [of Captain Jack] has such fun, such joie de vivre, the way John plays it I hope that it’s a character you’ll want to spend time with,” says Chibnall. “There’s this thing Jack says in episode two, ‘you people and your quaint little categories’, that’s what Torchwood is about. For Jack this is not an issue. And as Noel was saying it’s about tolerance and equality, it’s about celebrating life and enjoying life in every sense.”
“And,” Clarke adds, “Saving the world in the meantime.”
Chibnall on ‘The fan reaction to Torchwood’.
“We’ve been here (at Comic Con ) for hours and we haven’t been assassinated.”
Clarke and Chibnall both on their favorite childhood food, ‘Lasagna’.
Chibnall: ” For me, growing up in the 70’s lasagna was exotic. You couldn’t get anything like that.”
Clarke: “I had a friend from school, his mother was American and she made lasagna and it was fantastic. She taught my mom, who’s from Trinidad, and it became my favorite thing. ‘If you’re good you’ll get lasagna.’ (He feigns sitting all quite in anticipation of this magical dish.)
Chibnall on ‘Doctor Who, the Childhood Hero’.
Chibnall: “My kid goes to nursery. My wife went to pick him up and the teacher said, ‘oh well, he’s been keeping us very amused this morning with all his stories about his daddy meeting Captain Jack in Cardiff.’ My wife goes, ‘No no, he really has been meeting Captain Jack in Cardiff.’ ‘Oh, okay, then!'”
Clarke and Chibnall on ‘Who Inspires You?’
Chibnall: “My kids, if I’m going to be sappy about it. I have two little boys, one of whom is four and the way that Doctor Who inspires him it stretches his imagination and makes him believe anything is possible.”
Clarke: “Mine’s equally sappy. My mother for making me determined, always telling me to follow what I wanted to do. Even though she came to England and struggled so I could get a proper education and a good job, when I said I wanted to act she was like, ‘you do what you wanna do, but if you’re going to do it, do it 100%.’ And I do. Anything I do, I do it 100%.T
Watch Torchwood on BBCAmerica’s SciFi Saturday starting September 8th.
Watch Doctor Who on SciFi Channel Fridays at 8:00 and don’t miss the season finale featuring Captain Jack Harkness on October 5th.