The first plot arc that the 10th Doctor encountered actually had it’s origin in the 9th Doctor story ‘Bad Wolf’. Among the many questions that Anne Droid asked on the futuristic version of ‘The Weakest Link’ was “The Great Cobalt Pyramid is built on the remains of which famous Old Earth Institute?”
The answer was Torchwood.
It wasn’t until ‘The Christmas Invasion’ when the current Prime Minister Harriet Jones (yes, I know you know who she is) authorises Torchwood to fire a recovered alien laser at the retreating Sycorax ship that it became clear that this was going to be a reoccurring plot thread, ultimately leading to what is arguably the most successful Doctor Who spin-off series to date.
This wasn’t just the setting up of a villain or threat for the Doctor, this was the establishing of a franchise from the ground up.
In subsequent episodes not only do we hear several mentions of Torchwood we also see how it was formed in ‘Tooth and Claw’. By the time we reach ‘Army of Ghosts/Doomsday‘ they were central stage, just in time for the launch of the ‘Torchwood’ series.
The brand of Torchwood has certainly lasted, with a co-funded American made series due to be aired shortly but how successful is it as a plot arc within Doctor Who? Did their inclusion improve or hamper the episodes?
What it does right is establish an organisation within the Doctor Who universe that wasn’t there before. Taking advantage of the time travelling format of the show the writers are able to show how far into the past and future Torchwood reaches.
We quickly get the feel that the Torchwood Institute are a large, well funded organisation that deals with alien threats. In previous Doctor Who stories this would normally fall into the jurisdiction of UNIT but Torchwood appeared to be better equipped, secretive and reporting directly to the British government.
A sense of apprehension is also created in ‘Tooth and Claw’ when we learn that Queen Victoria founded the organisation not only to fight alien threats but to be directly antagonistic towards the Doctor.
Other characters are shown to have their concerns about Torchwood, the police officers worried that they might get involved in ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ and the newsreaders comments in ‘Fear Her.’
There is a darkness about them. Torchwood aren’t there to save you, they are there to protect Britain from outsiders. They are also powerful, lasting into the future and funding expeditions such as the one seen in ‘The Satan Pit’.
It was a little harder to miss the Torchwood references during this season. Rather than just being background details the organisation was being mentioned in the dialogue and had been brought to the viewers attention in ‘Tooth and Claw’.
The final two parter had them capture the Doctor and unwittingly unleash Daleks and Cybermen on to the Earth. After all the build up Torchwood were unable to stand up to this assault, suffering heavy losses.
This highlights how a plot arc can damage the episodes. References can end up making no sense in retrospect, promising something that is never fulfilled. We are told that Torchwood is powerful and competent but we never see this.
For all the soldiers who died while serving in UNIT we at least felt that they could get the job done. Even the soldiers in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ were able to handle a small number of the alien invaders.
On screen Torchwood suffers a crippling blow which they never recover from. Overnight they are reduced to just two active offices with only a handful of agents ‘The Runway Bride’ even suggests that a major Torchwood facility was just abandoned, co-opted by the Racnoss.
While the attack on Torchwood 1 at Canary Wharf was certainly devastating there was nothing to suggest the loss of life was so great that the total infrastructure of the Torchwood Institute collapsed, never to recover.
It is inconceivable that a single strike on any government organisation, such as MI6, would result in the dissolution of the whole agency. One is forced to wonder how they received their funding and what command structures were in place that could allow this to happen. Even small businesses have recovery plans in anticipation of a disaster.
The television series of ‘Torchwood’ was already in place before the end of the 2006 story arc. This wasn’t a series that fans were crying out for, as they were for the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures. This was a manufactured franchise that not only was no one asking for but didn’t live up to it’s own promise.
The build up showed a powerful, well trained organisation when the intent was always to reduce Torchwood almost to nothing, leaving just one rogue faction left. Certainly the television series showed they had access to limited technology but it would be difficult to describe anyone in the Cardiff office as competent.
In the first season alone the Torchwood members have been directly or indirectly responsible for a large number of innocent people not to mention abusing the technology to drug, mind wipe and arguably rape the people they were supposed to be protecting.
They’d threatened to kill each other and in the final episode ‘End of Days’ Owen murdered the leader of the team, Jack Harkness. Clearly there is no departmental oversight or Torchwood have some very lax personnel rules.
There was also the confusion of just how secret Torchwood was supposed to be. The impression we were given was that they were a covert operation, with the public at large being unaware of them. Even the Doctor had never heard of them in all his travels.
Yet the need to have a reference to them in every episode meant that lots of people knew about them and could be mentioned on public television with the expectation that the audience at home in the Dr Who universe would know who they were.
Did the Torchwood story arc work?
In terms of plot I’d have to say no. The threat had more to do with the Daleks and Cybermen, not Torchwood itself. Any other organisation could have filled their role with the episode itself and certainly didn’t require the build up.
In terms of adding to the Doctor Who universe I’d say yes. Torchwood serve as a shady counter-part to UNIT and as mentioned they were integrated well into the history. There is the question of if this is a change to established history or if they were always there, but that can be explored at a later date.
In terms of execution I’m forced to say no. The plot arc didn’t deliver and the agenda was purely to create a spin-off series which doesn’t benefit the Doctor Who series itself. The main series should not be used as vehicle to create other programs in a such a cynical and manipulative manner.
What can we learn from this story arc?
Firstly make sure that the arc can support itself. Will it have a satisfying conclusion? By keeping the plot elements in the background are you reducing the time the player characters have to interact with them?
Secondly examine what your agenda is for creating the plot arc in the first place. Are you doing it to improve the individual adventures and the overall playing experience or are you doing it to benefit yourself? Are you hoping it will lead to something else and are you sure that the players want that?
Thirdly make sure that the plot arc makes sense. Realise that references in the future need to anticipate actions you plan to take place in the first, events which could be affected by your players actions.
Fourthly does your plot arc set up the correct expectations. If you establish one thing can you follow through or will you leave your players disappointed?
Next we’ll be talking about the 2007 season which introduced us to Mr Saxon.