“Excuse me, have you seen a blowfish driving a sports car?”
When one slayer dies, another is called. And so, with the disappearance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from our screens several years ago, television producers cast desperately about, looking for a replacement for the hip, cultish Scooby gang. Nowhere more so than in Britain, where we had a go with the fun but inconsequential Hex, until Buffy fan Russell T Davies had the bright idea of combining a lot of Joss Whedon’s style with his own obsession – and thus was born the new Doctor Who.
What, then, to make of Who spinoff Torchwood? In its first series, it was admittedly an attempt to ape the style of Buffy‘s sister (or should it be brother?) show Angel and set it in Cardiff. Hence the dark, brooding hero in a long coat who stood on top of tall buildings for no very good reason and investigated sexy mysteries. The trouble with season one of Torchwood was its determined efforts to be “adult”, which amounted to little more than how an adolescent boy might define the term – everyone was bisexual and copping off with everyone else, and the word “fuck” was shoehorned uncomfortably into dialogue where it didn’t belong as if to scream “look how grown up I am!”
Thankfully, between seasons new show runner Chris Chibnall (the man responsible for the show’s worst excesses in its first season) must have taken a long hard look at some of Joss Whedon’s work and decided that explicit sex, gore and swearing do not necessarily make a show adult. And obviously having taken note of many of the criticisms of that first season, he’s actually retooled the show into something that works far, far better, principally by giving it something that was a key ingredient in Buffy – a sense of humour.
From the very beginning of season opener Kiss Kiss Bang Bang it was obvious that we were seeing a very different show, as a curmudgeonly old woman shook her head at the asinine Torchwood-mobile and muttered “Bloody Torchwood”, thereby acknowledging everyone’s realisation that they must be the least secret secret outfit in the world. Indeed, the episode’s very title (nicked from the Japanese translation of a James Bond title) self-mockingly summed up the popular opinion of Torchwood as a whole.
But there was more to be learned from Buffy than just a sense of humour. In an amusing reverse of the scheme BBC2 introduced to show Buffy uncut by repeating it later at night, Torchwood will now have a “junior edition”, repeated at 6 o’clock to grab the younger viewers who like Doctor Who but can’t watch an “adult” show. With the episodes from season one, this would mostly have meant cutting the episodes down to ten minutes long just to get rid of the gratuitous shagging, but again, Mr Chibnall seems to have learned something. Even in its full-on adult incarnation, the new season had not a single swearword that I could spot, and the sex was confined to nothing more than flirting. Oh, and a full-on snog between John Barrowman and James Marsters.
Yes, the final ingredient nicked from Buffy was Spike himself, James Marsters, as new recurring baddie Captain John Hart. And he’s not half bad. The role is basically just Spike all over again, a sort of irresistibly charming bad boy with a roving eye, and Marsters even plays it with the same English accent he adopted way back when he hung around the canteen with Tony Head. But his cocky, dodgy charmer brings a real new life not just to the show but also to Captain Jack Harkness, who has thankfully got back to the ebullient character we knew from Doctor Who before he got stuck in Cardiff last year. In point of fact, the relationship between old flames Jack and John is reminiscent of nothing so much as the flirtatious byplay between Avon and Servalan in the glory days of Blake’s 7!
With those two hogging the limelight, the rest of the gang didn’t get much of a look in, but it was obvious even from their brief appearances that they’d been retooled a bit too. Especially Owen, who by no fault of actor Burn Gorman had in season one become a close contender for most irritating man on television (yes, worse than Justin Lee Collins). They’ve only gone and given him a sense of humour, so thankfully there are no lines about coming so hard you forget where you are. Indeed, the inter team sexual tension seems to have been stepped down a notch too, with Jack asking office boy Ianto on a date seeming oddly touching, unlike the incomprehensible attempt at innuendo involving a stopwatch shoehorned in last year.
Comfortingly, despite its post modern shine, the plot was still tosh. So Captain John’s hunting for a huge diamond that his ex let on about before he killed her. Except there was no diamond, just a revenge scheme by her to kill John. Except, if she’d never let on about this diamond in the first place, he wouldn’t have killed her, so there’d be no need for revenge and…. I can’t stand the confusion in my mind! Still, it was pulled off with so much panache that I was barely able to believe the credit I’d seen on the screen at the beginning – “By Chris Chibnall”. Wonders will never cease.
Of course, over on ITV they’ve got their own Buffy/Doctor Who contender, and since it returned in the same week as Torchwood, the TV guides wasted no time in pitting them at each other’s throats. “Torchwood vs Primeval!” screamed the Radio Times as though it were Clinton vs Obama. “Who will win?”
Hmm. Well, Primeval too has wasted no time in retooling itself since last year. When we last saw Professor Nick Cutter, he was left reeling after his butterfly-stomping activities in the Cretaceous had changed time so that his girlfriend had never existed. But Cutter’s time-fiddling, it soon transpired in the new series, had had far more results than just removing one of the show’s main characters. It gave the showrunners a chance to make the crack team look loads more professional by giving them a shiny new research centre to investigate the mysterious temporal anomalies, called, imaginatively enough, the Anomaly Research Centre. Oddly, the government as personified by Ben Miller’s marvellously slimy James Lester, still seem to have overlooked the logical idea of putting any kind of physicists on the case, instead relying on Cutter and his crack team of palaeontologists to clean up the anomalies’ messes rather than sorting out the problem itself. Of course, if they did sort out the problem there’d be no reason for a show, so I can’t see it happening any time soon.
Jurassic Park rather more astutely observed that while palaeontologists might know about prehistoric life, they would hardly be skilled enough to deal with it in the flesh. So Cutter’s gang have a token zoologist in the person of S Club 7’s Hannah Spearitt, who seems to particularly specialise in not wearing very many clothes. This season there seems to be some sort of arc involving her and the oddly pretty token nerd, played rather well by the endearing Andrew Lee Potts. Unlike Torchwood, though, this doesn’t have a late night edition, so I can’t imagine they’ll be coming so hard they forget where they are in the near future.
While they are at last examining a few of the messier aspects of time travel, the show is still at heart just about letting prehistoric monsters terrorise the Home Counties. So in episode one, our heroes leapt into action to deal with a gang of velociraptors roaming a gleaming new shopping mall. Comparisons with Dawn of the Dead were inevitable, but this show doesn’t have that kind of gravitas. What it has instead is a motorbike chase through a shopping centre to the tune of Republica’s “Ready to Go”. Reassuringly it’s just the same kind of dumb fun it was last year, and I don’t have a problem with that at all. It’s not trying to be anything more significant. It’s when a show like Doctor Who gets dumb that I get annoyed, often thanks to Chris Chibnall.
So, Torchwood vs Primeval. Who will win? Well, given that Torchwood runs for thirteen episodes and Primeval gets six, I think Jack and his gang will be the last Buffy clones standing. And on the evidence of the trailer at the end of their first episode, it looks like it could be quite a ride.