Torchwood and the art of the big finish

This week’s big television event was the five-part series of Torchwood across five consecutive nights. Everyone seemed to be talking about it, and the general view seems to be that it was really very good. Except that a lot of folk don’t like the finish.

Before I saw the end, I was opining that the headwriter Russell T Davies (RTD to fans) and the production team’s track record on series finales as “no better than 50-50”. That’s because over the past four years the writing and production team behind Torchwood and its parent series Doctor Who have been excellent in setting up a series finale – only to consistently drop the ball in the final minutes. It’s very frustrating for the viewers, who keep hoping that the production team doesn’t make the same mistake time and again only to see it happen.

Before tackling “Children of Earth”, let’s review the evidence for my 50-50 statement:

Dr Who – Series 1

Build-up: A surprisingly successful sharp satire on reality shows masks the real threat. After seeing one Dalek earlier in the series, their return – en masse – is unexpected and the Doctor aghast and overwhelmed.

Big finish: having written himself into a corner, RTD pulls out the most outrageous deus ex machina when companion Rose pops the hood of the TARDIS and gains superpowers. Just consider that for a moment: why did the entire race of Time Lords die in a war against the Daleks when they could just have done this themselves? What’s to stop the Doctor doing this the next time he faces overwhelming or mildly worrying enemy forces? It’s a dreadful pay-off for fans; even the ‘Big Wolf’ season-long tease proves to be a waste of space/red herring. The finale is salvaged slightly by ending on a terrific farewell scene for Christopher Ecclestone.

Result: Impossible to overlook that howling plot device under the TARDIS console.

Dr Who – Series 2

Build-up: the season’s foes have been the Cybermen, and they’re invading earth. And then in the final seconds of the penultimate episode there’s a brazen, jolting about face when suddenly the Daleks fly into shot. Fans the country over fall off their chairs and yell expletives.

Big finish: the episode loses confidence on the Dalek vs Cybermen face-off and concentrates instead on the Tyler family soap opera. At least the resolution (sucking the enemies into a parallel universe) is fairly well prefigured and set up, far less of a “with one bound he was free” resolution than season 1. And the farewell to Rose is suitably teary.

Result: Not as good as it perhaps could have been, but on the wholea success.

Dr Who – Series 3

Build-up: The terrific Derek Jacobi has been unveiled as The Master and then promptly regenerated into the deliciously deranged performance of John Simm who goes on to take over and enslave the earth and the Doctor. Everything is at stake, all appears lost.

Big finish: Oh, dear God. For my money the absolute nadir of the revived Dr Who. An even bigger deus ex machina than that of season 1, which makes literally no sense whatsoever, combined with disturbing pseudo-religious overtones (companion Martha as a prophet wandering the earth foretelling the resurrection of the Messiah with the sonic screwdriver who even wakes in a Christ-like pose, and with inexplicable superpowers). And then to rub in the disastrous spectacle even more, the whole thing is dismissed as a time paradox that never happened – the science fiction equivalent of “it was all a dream”. Is that Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower? You know an episode is truly appalling when it ends with a scene ripped straight out of the 1980s kitsch remake of Flash Gordon.

Result: Shockingly bad.

Dr Who – Series 4

Build-up: Catherine Tate had proved spectacular as companion Donna and the stories had been getting better and better. Finally the earth is stolen, the Daleks pour in – and the Doctor is exterminated and apparently about to regenerate. A nation goes berserk waiting for the final episode.

Big finish: this one is rather like Death By Chocolate, only with several dozen more lashings of chocolate added on for good measure. It’s irresistible, leaves you with an huge sugar high – and just about gets away with it all thanks to the sheer energy and goodwill of all concerned. The scene where all the Doctor’s friends join to pilot the TARDIS will put a lump in any fan’s throat, enabling us to overcome to ludicrous sight of the TARDIS ‘towing’ the earth at warp speed which makes no sense at all. And the final tragic fate of Donna adds a much needed hard edge of pathos to finish on.

Result: An overblown end-of-term party, not perfect but impossible to dislike.

Torchwood – Series 1

Build-up: a series that struggled to find its feet and had some truly awful moments (the Cyberwoman instalment has to be seen to be believed – only, don’t) finally finds a creepy ‘arc’ with a mysterious elderly man plotting something Satanically evil.

Big finish: thrown away in an utterly pointless CGI-fest of a giant devil-like creature striding over Cardiff for a few minutes before being dispatched by some forgettable technobabble. An embarrassing end for all concerned for a supposedly “adult” science fiction show, this one wouldn’t have made the Saturday morning cartoons.

Result: Just when it looked like Torchwood was getting form, it crashes and burns again. Frustrating

Torchwood – Series 2

Build-up: a much-improved second series climaxes with the return of Captain Jack’s long-lost, presumed-dead brother. Unfortunately the character seems to be played by a plank of wood.

Big finish: long-lost brother is out for revenge. From the start you suspect that one of the Torchwood team is going to die in the process – but it’s not who you think. And it’s not just one. A genuinely shocking final episode that connects on a real emotional level as well.

Result: still rather flawed, but a strong finish this time around.

Grand total

I’d charitably describe that as 50-50. You have one outright disaster and two serious disappointments, against three that are successes even if not quite as good as you actually hoped and expected given the build-up.

That’s why I approached the final episode of the latest Torchwood mini-series with some trepidation even knowing how good the first episodes had been. Which side of the 50-50 division would it fall?

Torchwood – Children of Earth [Spoilers]

This mini series had already notched up some impressive moments: the total destruction of Torchwood’s base at the end of Day 1 was a real shocker; the team on the run, 24-style; Peter Capaldi superb as the buttoned-down, haunted civil servant; the brilliantly tense and iconic negotiation scenes between Capaldi and the aliens, the 456; the slow unfolding of the conspiracies; revelations about Captain Jack; a great “jail break’ scene involving a fork lift and a block of concrete.

Torchwood really did seem to benefit from a Quatermass-esque mini series format, allowing it time to open out one story to epic lengths and deliver genuine intelligence, class and depth. Much of the drama wasn’t about shootings, explosions, actions and science fiction but about the real human drama of a group of people sitting around a conference room table making impossible decisions – genuine grown-up, adult drama and not the puerile “adult SciFi” the series started off with two years ago with sex and naughty words.

And yet for all that, I waited with bated breath to see whether they would fumble the ball on the touchline again. 50-50, right?

Well for my money they pulled it off and this solidly weights the 50-50 balance towards the positive column. There was no deus ex machina for once (the resolution was clearly signposted throughout, especially with the death of Clem, and was clearly logical within the set-up of the story), the human drama was excellent, and the pacing was just about right almost to the very end rather than being the usual mad rush that leaves half a dozen plot strands undone in the process. A particularly nice touch was the actual dreadful secret of why the 456 wanted the children – a more dreadful reveal than expected. Shame the child-symbiont we saw in the mist was a blatant reuse of the distinctively odd-looking Toclafane props from “Last of the Time Lords” though.

Of course, there are a few quibbles. The pointless, lazy recycling of the contact-lenses-recording-everything plot at the end of day 5, for one. Then there was the Prime Minister ordering Frobisher’s children to be added to the aliens’ collection: while it made for a suitable if rather pat ending to that character’s storyline, the idea that the PM would think that the loss of an obscure civil servant’s family would in anyway persuade press and public that the government had suffered too was absurd and a misunderstanding of basic political and media reality. Why not get the children of a few ministers who weren’t party to the COBRA discussions? And let’s leave aside the impossibility of the government organising a nationwide round-up of children on this scale in a matter of hours, when we all know that they’d be lucky to get something half-arsed moving in a couple of months.

And the ending of episode/day 4 annoyed me. That seemed like a knee-jerk “oh, it’s time to kill another of the main cast” moments for no particular reason. And to add insult to injury, Ianto’s then forgotten to the horror of Captain Jack having to make the decision to sacrifice his own grandchild to save the world. This moment seemed rather nasty and not a little exploitative, but to be honest it’s actually also very much in line with the overriding theme of people having to make dreadful, impossible decisions, and their characters being measured by their choices at such critical times. The final contrast between the PM and and his cohorts set to brazen it out, and Captain Jack finding his actions impossible to live with and literally fleeing the world to get away from the ghosts of his deeds, was nicely set-out and played.

It’s impossible not to think that this really is the end of Torchwood as a series. The cast is essentially out of commission: either dead, retired (to motherhood) or out of this world, Torchwood has no future. Which is a shame, especially after all the work that’s gone into raising the series to prime time BBC1 status with such striking results and strong ratings. I suppose they could resurrect it, but it would feel cheap to do so after this, and so it seems this is the end of the BBC’s only grown-up science fiction show just when it had finally found a heart and a brain to call its own.

So, final result: Torchwood – Series 3 delivers stronger than almost any of RTD’s other big finishes. But a shame it really does seem to be an unremittingly downbeat ending with no hope of a future.


  1. Seb

    Strangely I agree with all your comments, but not your conclusion. I found the end weak and floppy, not strong. As I have said elsewhere I would have forgiven many of the cludgy bits if they had cut the last few minutes of mopping up, which I felt completely betrayed everything that had been built up.

  2. justathought

    agree:1) Torchwood season 1 ending – it was bad, very bad
    2) torchwood season 2 ending was decent.
    3 ) Children Of Earth ending was good.
    about the others :
    Dr Who season 1 : not as bad as you say – it’s not like the timelords couldn’t use the vortex they didn’t cause it’s a timelord law. that’s acceptable.
    Dr Who season 2: was okay too.
    Dr Who season 3: well I’ll give you that one as well but give the show a little break – it’s a scifi show.
    Dr Who season 4: a little too much for me and giving Rose her very own Doctor was hilarious – this one is in my opinion the worst of the ending bus still okay.
    Torchwood season 2: it was okay.

    overall for me it’s more 75-25 not 50-50.

  3. andrewlewin

    Thanks for your comments, guys!

    Seb: yes, saw your comments over on The Pickards. I agree about the female Cabinet Minister (would have been much better to just leave it looking like the PM was going to get away with it) but it was a minor detail that didn’t upset me. As for Jack abandoning Torchwood – actually I’d have been way MORE annoyed if they’d attempted a “right, let’s get back to work and rebuild the Hub” ending after all that. It can’t go back to how it was, for anyone. Overall I thought the show, right to the end, was true to its themes (the consequences of our choices) and the plot was logically followed through, which is why I overlook some undoubted quibbles.

    Justathought: actually sounds like we agree on the majority of the finales; even S4 being “a little too much for me” is what I was trying to convey with “Death by Chocolate with extra lashings of chocolate sauce”. It was a mess, but also such a high that it got away with it.

    Where we clearly mainly differ is in our reaction to the two ‘deus ex machina’ finales. I obviously have a serious hatred of endings which say in effect “things are looking bad … Oh, but everyone suddenly gets superpowers out of the blue and kill off the enemies! The end!” It’s a betrayal of the time and emotional investment of the audience. Why should we care next time there’s any jeopardy involved?

    It’s not a case of saying “it’s just a scifi show” because you actually have to take even more care in establishing and keeping to the ground rules for making a scifi/fantasy universe believable and workable for it to succeed. If we don’t believe in the situation and the characters then the show is worthless. RTD too often fails to do that, which is why I’ve long thought that he’s as bad a science fiction writer as he is an excellent writer of drama and emotion.

    By the way, I think my final scoreline – factoring in Torchwood S3 as well – would be 60-40. Maybe even 65-35 if you catch me at a charitable moment.

  4. Seb

    “I’d have been way MORE annoyed if they’d attempted a “right, let’s get back to work and rebuild the Hub” ending after all that”

    I agree – but sometimes it may be better to just leave things open, perhaps?

    The whole premise of Torchwood was that they had to make difficult decisions and keep going. At the start of each show it stated “The 21st century is when it all changes; and Torchwood is ready” – that was completely betrayed by the ending of this story.

  5. andrewlewin

    I agree about the finality of the ending for Torchwood being a real shame.

    But it’s true to the story: after being bombed, shot-at, imprisoned, entombed and your family targeted by your own world government it’s hard to really be motivated even if “the 21st century is when it all happens.” The theme of the story was that they were pushed beyond breaking point, beyond what anyone could endure, and they pulled it off. But there are costs and consequences when you go that far: we saw it with Gwen’s disillusionment (her comments about the baby; her piece to camera saying how ashamed The Doctor must be looking at the Earth sometimes) and with Jack being unable to face it anymore.

    If they could pick themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on after this then you’d have to question whether it had really been as costly and as big a deal as it appeared. This ending said it was: they won, but at the cost of everything. Even Torchwood. The 21st century will have to survive (or not) without them, because it asked too much this time. I don’t think it betrayed the story at all as a result, quite the reverse.

  6. seethree

    I agree with pretty much everything you say. Torchwood Children of Earth made for extraordinary television and justified the decision to play it across one week: the word-of-mouth effect has no doubt added to the shock / backlash regarding the ending some viewers are expressing elsewhere online. If it’s the aim of good drama to provoke a response and make people think about what they’re seeing, then it’s been a great success, hence viewers care about what happens.

    I’m still digesting what occurred in the last episode. It’s not easy to see a protagonist do what Captain Jack did at the end of the story, but as you say, the story had the courage to follow through the awful logic that the situation produced, with each character sacrificing, or contemplating the sacrifice (e.g. Gwen’s baby) of someone they love.

    Very sorry to see the demise of Ianto, though, as one of my favourite characters. It was handled poignantly, especially as Jack woke up beside a grieving Gwen, but it did, inevitably, get a little overshadowed. Interesting how the Ianto / Jack relationship, and the inescapable outcome of dating an Immortal (a dangerous thing to do, fitting in with the show’s reference to sacrifice to the Greek gods), was foreshadowed in the Radio 4 plays last week. The story beautifully challenged us to wonder if Jack was not only immortal, but amoral – someone ‘who doesn’t care’. He clearly does.

    The ending was indeed desolate, and doesn’t feel like anything but the end of something. This is odd given the increasing profile, and overall quality of the series – and I thought they were building a Torchwood exhibition in Cardiff? I don’t think they’d do that if they didn’t anticipate the series carrying on (what with the possibility of Martha coming back, as well as possibility of Mickey as implied in the Who S4 finale, as well as at least two of the characters of Children of Earth – could Jack be jetting off for a cameo in the Who specials later in the year for redemption?).

    Oh well, if it is the end of Torchwood, what a powerfully bitter-sweet (well, perhaps just bitter!) way to go – but it might just surprise us yet.

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