When I signed up to review ‘Torchwood: The Complete First Season,’ I had absolutely no idea it was a spin-off of the most recent incarnation of ‘Doctor Who.’ So to candidly address the concerns of any diehard fans right up front… yes, I’m completely unfamiliar with the Who mythos; no, I’ve never caught a single episode; and yes, there will be people who rant that this is one of those reviews. But rest easy, dear readers. Despite my admitted ignorance of ‘Torchwood’s television genealogy, I genuinely enjoyed its deft blend of colorful science fiction, intense character drama, and supernatural intrigue. I suppose you can consider me a new convert.
While a lot of the series’ setup won’t make much sense to anyone relying on a paragraph-long plot synopsis, ‘Torchwood’ tells the at-times complex tale of a specialized branch of the Torchwood Institute (a secret British organization tasked with studying, exploiting, and combating alien threats). The team is comprised of five eclectic personalities -- an immortal ex-con man named Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), cynical medical officer Dr. Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), passive technical expert Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), straight-laced support officer Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), and new recruit Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). Over the course of the first season’s episodes, the uneasy colleagues encounter a seemingly limitless parade of potentially dangerous creatures, work through a variety of personal issues, and contend with vengeful villains.
’Torchwood’ has quite a few things going for it. Most noticeably, the series avoids the usual hyper-pop sci-fi stylings in favor of surprisingly mature themes and dark storylines. Wit and humor abound, but it’s the complicated interpersonal conflicts and emotional barriers that give each episode bite. It also helps that the characters aren’t the raving clichés their bios might suggest. A pair of the male agents are bi-sexual, while conversations and arguments abound that dig into pressing societal and ethical debates. Most impressively, the series’ writing is exceptional, revealing subtle tidbits about each character every time someone opens their mouth. Plot progression is handled naturally, exposition is kept to a minimum, and the members of Torchwood Three are rarely painted into any corner.
Complaints? First, it took me a few episodes to get acquainted with several key characters and plot points -- elements with which ‘Doctor Who’ junkies should be passionately familiar. Second, the series occasionally borders on the dreaded villain-of-the-week motif that has nearly derailed show’s like ‘Smallville.’ Thankfully, intelligent scripts and strong performances keep it all in check. And last (and arguably least), some of the plot developments are solely implemented to push boundaries and separate the show from the sci-fi pack. I appreciate the use of thought-provoking character traits and lifestyles, but I found it to be a bit distracting when some of the characters’ bi-sexuality was milked for all it was worth. Ah well, any issue I had with the show was relatively minor and didn’t overly detract from the otherwise engaging production.
As far as I’m concerned, don’t let ‘Torchwood’s ties to ‘Doctor Who’ stop you from exploring its twisted labyrinth of interesting characters, sharp dialogue, and solid storytelling. While I’m sure ‘Who’ fans will sink in faster than the newly initiated like myself, it doesn’t take long to realize ‘Torchwood’ is far better than the average sci-fi junk that pops up on television every year.
The only disappointing aspect of the Blu-ray edition of ‘Torchwood: The Complete First Season’ is, unfortunately, its most important: its video quality. Presented with an underwhelming 1080i/VC-1 transfer, the series looks marginally better than it does on DVD, but only when it comes to fundamental enhancements like increased clarity, color stabilization, and image cleanliness. Granted, they’re are all commendable upgrades -- detail gets a decent boost, textures are more faithfully preserved, the palette is more vibrant, and the picture doesn’t suffer from the same level of errant artifacting -- but it simply doesn’t offer enough of an improvement to justify more enthusiasm or a higher score.
Problems abound. Contrast is uneven at times, edge enhancement appears in almost every episode, crush and blocking are regular (albeit minimal) issues, blacks aren’t always fully resolved, delineation is hit or miss, and the high-def presentation uncovers more seams and irregularities in the series’ effects and prosthetics than its creators would probably like people to see. To be clear, each problem isn’t nearly as detrimental as I may have led you to believe, but when taken as a whole, the presentation is too disappointing to afford much praise. Ultimately, ‘Torchwood’ fans will find that the transfer looks better than its standard DVD counterpart, but its technical mishaps will certainly spoil some of the fun.
Here’s a surprise. After shrugging off other BBC releases burdened with either stereo sound or flat surround tracks, ‘Torchwood: The Complete First Season’ arrives with a notable DTS HD 5.1 mix (not to be confused with a lossless DTS HD Master Audio track) that overcomes the series’ somewhat limited design to deliver a dynamic soundscape worth hearing. Dialogue is crisp, clean, and perfectly intelligible, low-end bass pulses are weighty and natural, and the rear speakers are tasked with enough environmental ambience and explosive support to make a real impression. Pans are also quite smooth and directionality is spot on (a particular treat considering what you usually find on a television release). Sure, the soundfield is a bit front-heavy at times when characters get chatty, but there’s always a more involving sonic sequence just around the corner.
The only serious issue I had with the DTS track is the inconsistency of the various sound effects and music cues throughout the series. I know it’s the result of the original sound design, but it still pulled me out of the experience every time and, like many of the special effects, reminded me that I was watching a show created on a tight budget. Ah well, ‘Torchwood’ fans will still be satisfied with the audio on this one.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Torchwood: The Complete First Season’ includes all of the never-ending commentaries and features that appear on the series’ standard DVD set. The supplements get extremely repetitive after a while and the video content’s SD presentation isn’t the best I’ve seen, but fans will really enjoy the sheer volume of material the studio and producers have dumped onto this release. Honestly, the package is incredibly daunting and I found myself skimming through everything just to get through it all.
Usually, a four-star average earns a Blu-ray release an automatic “Recommended” from me, but as with any television series, you should definitely give a few episodes of ‘Torchwood’ a spin before you commit any cash to a purchase. As far as the Blu-ray edition is concerned, a problematic video transfer (likely the result of the original source, not the transfer itself) is a distraction, but the otherwise impressive six-disc set features a noteworthy DTS audio track and a vast collection of supplements that would take more than fifteen hours to dig through. All things considered, it’s definitely worth a look.